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WFLA Channel 8 reporter sacrificed truth to advance career, lawsuit says

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A Hillsborough woman says she was defamed by two “completely false” television reports and has filed suit against Media General, owner of WFLA Channel 8, and one of its reporters.

Erisan Seibert is also claiming that TV reporter Shannon Behnken invaded her privacy by, among other things, “intentionally and without authorization” intruding upon and invading her private living space.

The defamation and privacy violations, Seibert says in the suit, shocked, traumatized and humiliated her. Seibert is seeking monetary damages for both the defamation and invasion of privacy.

Neither Seibert, Behnken, nor Media General could be reached for comment.

The lawsuit arose from two WFLA television reports in 2014. The reports were also promoted on the station and featured in stories on the station’s web page. According to the lawsuit and a letter from Seibert’s attorney, Jesse L. Skipper of St. Petersburg, the newscasts focused on a dispute between people who were sharing a Tampa house. Skipper’s 11-page letter demanding a retraction is attached to the lawsuit as an exhibit.

The impression left by the reports, according to the suit and the letter, was that Seibert had no right to be in the house but was merely squatting there. In actuality the suit says, Seibert had paid rent in order to share space in the house.

The lawsuit sets out 25 “false statements, implications and innuendos” in the broadcast. Among them: Seibert and her boyfriend had manipulated a loophole in the law to get a free place to stay; that she used the family’s coffee filters as toilet paper;  and that Seibert had no right to live in the house.

“Overall, the broadcasts and associated web stories were completely false,” Skipper’s letter says.

Had Behnken checked her facts, the falsity of the allegations made by one of the other parties to the dispute could have been easily discovered, the lawyer says. All Behnken had to do, Skipper said, was to check with police who had been called to the residence three times. Police, Skipper said, had “quickly determined” that the allegations made about Seibert were untrue.

“Ms. Behnken, on the other hand, was apparently not interested in the truth, but in racking up another ‘squatter’ story,” Skipper wrote. “Behnken knew critical facts were false and knew [the other party’s] story was improbable, hotly disputed and unsupported by evidence.”

Skipper added that Behnken was “not unbiased.”

“There are numerous remarks showing Ms. Behnken’s interest in reaping personal glory and advancing her career. … At the end of the July 14 broadcast, Behnken claims credit for driving these folks from their residence. Her attitude is openly taunting and triumphalist, the journalistic equivalent of spiking the ball and dancing an end-zone jig. It’s shameful and a virtual admission of malice, bad faith, and intent to harm,” Skipper wrote.

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