Can the Newsweek Reporter Fired Over Inaccurate Trump Story Sue For Wrongful Termination?

Employment lawyers weigh in on whether Jessica Kwong has a case

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Newsweek fired reporter Jessica Kwong last week for writing an inaccurate story about Donald Trump’s Thanksgiving plans. Kwong reported that the president would spend the holiday “tweeting, golfing, and more.” In reality, Trump made a surprise trip to visit troops in Afghanistan. He ridiculed the story by tweeting, “I thought Newsweek was out of business.”

Can Kwong sue the publisher for wrongful termination? Two New York-based employment lawyers spoke to TheWrap about whether or not Kwong has a case. Both agreed she doesn’t.

Emre Polat, an employment lawyer in New York, says it’s not a case of wrongful termination since Newsweek was — as far as he can tell — taking accountability in its own way by firing an employee in an at-will state where it’s legal to fire someone for any reason besides discrimination.

“Newsweek has a viable defense, I think, as to why they terminated her because this thing is out there and they may have jumped the gun on the story and done inaccurate reporting,” Polat said. “So they are taking measures, basically, to remedy that,” he added.

Maya Risman, another New York-based attorney, agreed. “I don’t see any legal case stemming from the termination. A newspaper can terminate a reporter for getting a story wrong. Certainly, that has happened multiple times in the past to reporters. There are various reasons why an employee can have an action against their employer, but that is not one of them.”

Kwong did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment on her firing, but she told the Washington Examiner over the weekend that the story was assigned to her in advance of Trump’s surprise trip and she reached out to the editor on duty on Thanksgiving to relay news of the trip. According to what Kwong told the Examiner, that editor chose to assign the story of the trip to a different reporter and didn’t update Kwong’s piece “in a timely manner.” A new headline and subsequent updates to the article came hours later. Newsweek demoted the editor involved.

While Kwong doesn’t seem to have any legal options, her firing is a cautionary tale for all newsrooms.

“I don’t know enough of the specifics to comment precisely, but it seems unfathomable to me that an editor (who is in charge no matter what) wouldn’t be the person to first own up to it and take responsibility for it, and let their writer flail in the wind and be attacked like that,” a politics editor at a national news site, who did not want to be identified, told TheWrap. “As an editor, even if your writer is the one who messed up, it’s your job to take responsibility.”

“The editor should have updated,” agreed Carl Coulanges, a professor of radio and television in New York. “Not doing so cost someone a job. The question is, ‘Was it worth it?’”

One Newsweek source pointed out to TheWrap that there is some “irony” in Trump’s response to Kwong’s story: “Did he or did he not spend his Thanksgiving tweeting?” asked the source, who also noted they weren’t “surprised” to see editors “covering their own mistake” with the firing.

As of Wednesday, there was no further comment from Newsweek on the fallout from the publication of the piece.

“It’s a high paced, stressful job and as much as we don’t like to admit it we make mistakes,” said the politics editor at a national news site, “but I can’t imagine having that happen to a reporter and not publicly stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, this is on me.’ I mean, has the editor even been named yet?”

Newsweek has not named the demoted editor or any editorial staff beyond Kwong who may have been involved.

Lawrence Yee contributed to this report.