Walt Baker, TV Exec Who Sued a Newspaper Reviewer for Libel, Dies at 84

Courtesy of Baker Family
Walt Baker

The former programming executive at KHJ-TV in Los Angeles also introduced audiences to Elvira, the sexy hostess of late-night horror movies.

Walt Baker, a former programming executive at KHJ-TV in Los Angeles whose libel lawsuit over a highly critical TV review in a local newspaper made it all the way to the Supreme Court, has died. He was 84.

Baker, who hired Cassandra Peterson to host late-night horror movies as the sexy and gothic Elvira character, died April 7 of natural causes at his home in Boise, Idaho, his family said.

Baker spent six decades in television and worked at KHJ (now KCAL) from 1967 until he resigned as vp programming in 1989, soon after the Walt Disney Co. purchased the station for $320 million.

Baker was the executive producer of a sex education documentary that aired on Channel 9 on Dec. 29, 1983. In a seven-paragraph review that appeared in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, reviewer Peter Bunzel wrote, “My impression is that executive producer Walt Baker … told his writer … ‘We’ve got a hot potato here — let’s pour on titillating innuendo and as much bare flesh as we can get away with. Viewers will eat it up.’ ”

Baker sued the newspaper and the reviewer, saying that no such conversation took place and that the article defamed him.

A state trial judge threw out the libel suit, ruling that the review was an expression of opinion, but a California appeals court said it went beyond a mere critique and reinstated the suit.

After the state Supreme Court overruled the appeals court, saying that the article was a constitutionally protected statement of opinion, Baker brought his case to the nation’s highest court, but the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1987 refused to revive the suit.

At KHJ, Baker also produced other documentaries and was executive producer of Los Angeles Lakers road games. He later served as vice president of Celtic Vision in Dublin and as director of programming and public affairs at KBCI-TV in Boise, where he hosted Eye on Idaho.

Survivors include his daughters Kitti, Kelli and Kathy, grandchildren Heather, Cary, Holly and Mandy and great-grandchildren Kylie and Connor.

A funeral service will be held at 1:30 p.m. on April 17 at Relyea Funeral Chapel in Boise.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4