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Ex-sailor on 'Iowa' to file libel lawsuits

TAMPA - Once again, Kendall Truitt stood in front of the cameras, denying the allegations. That he was homosexual. That he was another sailor's lover on board the battleship USS Iowa. That somehow, one or both of them were responsible for an explosion that ripped through the ship's gun turret, killing 47 sailors.

But this time, Truitt wasn't just denying the allegations. This time, he said, he is fighting them.

At a news conference Monday, Truitt and his lawyer announced that he soon will file libel lawsuits against four of the biggest institutions in journalism - NBC News, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. Other lawsuits against other media might follow, he and his lawyer said.

The real issue, according to Truitt's lawyer, Ellis Rubin is the way the media reported the story through the words of unnamed sources.

Last May, a spate of stories suddenly revealed that Navy officials were investigating whether the disaster was tied to the relationship between Truitt and sailor Clayton Hartwig, who died in the explosion.

The Navy eventually blamed Hartwig, not Truitt. The investigators concluded the explosion "most probably" was sabotage, and "most likely" was caused by Hartwig, who reportedly had been depressed. Even that tentative conclusion has been attacked in Congress and elsewhere.

But none of the later developments mattered to Truitt, Rubin said. "In 24 hours, Kendall Truitt, his name, his reputation and his career were entirely ruined," Rubin said.

The stories might have come from Navy investigators, said Truitt's wife, Carole, "but the press didn't have to run with it the way they did. They didn't have to hound us. They didn't have to pound at our door at 1 a.m. They didn't have to print that I'd said I wished my husband had died."

Truitt, 22, was discharged from the Navy last week. He said he decided not to re-enlist when he learned the position he wanted was unavailable. Navy spokesman Lt. Mark Walker in Washington said Monday that Truitt was denied re-enlistment because of a theft charge involving a car in Illinois. Truitt testified before Congress in December that the theft charge was reduced to a misdemeanor after he agreed to make restitution in the case.

He now works in a LandO'Lakes restaurant owned by his wife's family. That is why he and Rubin appeared in Tampa, although the lawsuit will be filed in Miami.

Officials at the four news organizations declined to comment on their handling of the story or on their policies regarding news sources.

"It's almost impossible for us to start talking, especially at this point, about who our sources were or whether we had corroboration," said Mary Ann Werner, an attorney for the Post.

But several libel law authorities predicted the Truitts will have a difficult time because the stories reported the thoughts and actions of officials.

"If all of this is being reported by the press not on their own authority, but simply as, 'Here's what people in government are saying,' then he's got virtually no case at all," said Marc Franklin, a law professor at Stanford University. "He's obviously suffered substantial damage to his reputation, ... but whether it's the press's fault or the explosion's, it's hard to say."

Does that make use of unnamed sources right? Not always, according to one media ethics expert.

"Overuse (of sources) can not only erode credibility of the media, but can lead to situations where confidential sources, by virtue of their protection, aren't always as reliable as they should be," said Bob Steele, acting director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg.

Also during the news conference, Rubin said Truitt was near the end of negotiations with three major studios on the production of a television movie and possibly a motion picture about his story.

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