Steven Seagal isn’t a name you’d expect to find at the center of a journalism blog battle—including an interesting one that hinges on the meaning of “declined to comment.”
The dispute started last Friday after the Los Angeles Times ran a piece by Chuck Philips about the aging action-hero’s claim that his career was damaged after his name came up in an FBI application to search the offices of a tough-guy private eye.
At issue is one sentence in the article: “Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment.”
The problem is that Mrozek says that he did comment. But it’s more complicated than that.
First some background: since the 2002 arrest of Anthony Pellicano (often referred to as the “private eye to the stars”), Hollywood has awaited a full accounting of his high profile targets and clients. After that search, he was convicted of possessing explosives; he’s now under indictment for racketeering, wiretapping, and illegally obtaining celebrity police records.
According to affidavits in the warrant application that became public despite a court seal, Seagal retained the services of Pellicano in 2002 to intimidate movie industry reporters. One journalist investigating Seagal’s alleged mob ties told investigators that she found a dead fish with a red rose stuffed in its mouth laying alongside a note reading “Stop.” Another reported having a gun pulled on him while driving.
Seagal admits that he’d hired Pellicano in the past, but denies he had anything to with intimidating the reporters. In Friday’s article Philips, who shared a 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Hollywood reporting, quoted Seagal’s lawyers insisting that by the time of the described incidents, Segal and Pellicano were enemies in an unrelated financial dispute. And they told Philips that they’d offered this and other seemingly-exculpatory information to the Feds, who nonetheless included the allegations an application for a warrant to search Pellicano’s offices.
Philips emailed Thom Mrozek, the Justice Department spokesperson, for comment on the lawyers’ claims. Mrozek wrote back, saying that “we never comment on discussions with attorneys representing defendants, targets of investigations or witnesses.” Then he went a little further and pooh-poohed the article’s general premise by adding that “the government has never charged or accused Mr. Seagal of being involved in the incident that led to the search of Pellicano’s office.”
“I very pointedly put that in there,” Mrozek told CJR, saying he’d heard from FBI sources who were speaking with Philips that the article would focus on Seagal’s involvement.
To Philips, that statement was irrelevant; at the heart of Seagal’s complaint is that he hasn’t been charged, and has therefore been unable to offer a defense. (The article did include the substance of Mrozek’s unquoted comments—that Seagal was never charged—without attributing the information to Mrozek.)
But the article boldly stated that Mrozek had “declined to comment.”
That didn’t sit well with Mrozek who, after all, did respond to Philips’s email. He says he thought that certainly constituted comment. So he emailed in a demand for a correction to Philips, his editors, and the paper’s reader representative on Friday afternoon—and included the original response to show, as he saw it, that he’d commented.
And then in what Philips thinks might be the first case of the government leaking to a blog, Mrozek forwarded his response to Philips’s original query to a L.A. Weekly blog, Deadline Hollywood Daily.
Philips decided to fight fire by fire, and (without asking his editors) sent L.A. Observed, a media blog, his complete email exchange with Mrozek. The emails make it clear that Mrozek didn’t comment on the question he was asked.
Philips has tangled with the U.S. attorney before, and doesn’t believe that Mrozek even genuinely feels aggrieved. “They don’t like someone telling them they are wrong,” he says. “I think he’s just throwing mud.”
So, he says, he threw back.
In the exchange, Philips testily—but we think correctly—told Mrozek that he was under no obligation to quote what the reporter later called Mrozek’s “convoluted government speak,” since he and his editor had determined the response to effectively be a non-response.
In other words, it was a comment that wasn’t a comment.