Sharon decision affirms libel law, but slaps a warning on media

Time magazine's victory over Ariel Sharon will not automatically resolve longstanding questions about press freedoms and responsibilities, news media observers say. But the trial has reaffirmed current libel laws affecting public officials, they say, and it has put pressure on the press to monitor itself more carefully.

During 11 days of deliberation, a six-member jury found that Time had defamed Mr. Sharon, the former Israeli defense minister, and that the magazine report was false. But they said Sharon did not prove that Time had published a disputed paragraph knowing it was false or with a ``reckless disregard'' to its truth or falsity.

An editorial in the New York Times the day after the verdict said: ``From our interested perspective in the trenches of journalism, the verdict affirms the law's special protections for a free press -- but also underscores the obligations that the media bear.

``Public officials remain on notice that they cannot easily punish criticism with libel suits. The press is on notice that it can nonetheless be held accountable -- and that it needs to provide better forums of rebuttal and redress.''

After the verdict was reached in Manhattan Federal District Court Thursday, David Rubin, chairman of the journalism school at New York University and head of the American Civil Liberties Union's communications media committee, said the jury had reached the right decision.

But Mr. Rubin says he doesn't expect a detrimental effect for Time. Its readers, he says, know that Sharon has a long history of controversy. He says many people are likely to agree with the jury's verdict; they may think Time overstated the story, but they are not likely to cancel their subscriptions.

Others disagree.

``I think as far as the public is concerned, Time has been given a black eye,'' says Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media, a conservative press watchdog based in Washington, D.C.

Throughout the trial there has been criticism within the media of Time's writing, editing, and checking methods. After the trial, managing editor Ray Cave said the verdict would indeed raise ``doubt in the public mind about how careful our processes are.''

But he said any such consideration would be short term. He maintains that the article was ``substantially true.''

Critics like Mr. Irvine label this ``arrogance.''

``Time is not going to change its practises,'' he says. ``Apparently it is business as usual.''

Some observers were concerned that a finding against Time would lead to different interpretions of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Most agree that the ruling will not affect libel laws, except to reaffirm that the threshold of libel for public officials -- that of proving actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth -- is still a difficult one to meet.

Rubin, like many staunch advocates of the press, says this is good. He doesn't think even public officials like Sharon should be able to sue for libel.

``He doesn't need a court of law,'' Rubin says, contending that Sharon could hold a press conference and get immediate public attention.

Reed Irvine disagrees. He points out that following the CBS broadcast that retired US Gen. William C. Westmoreland is disputing in the same court building as the Sharon case, the general held a press conference denouncing the program -- but Irvine says it received only 70 seconds of air time on CBS, half of which was used to repeat the charge made on the program.

There was no opportunity for General Westmoreland's many supporters to be heard, Irvine says. He notes that the Washington Post wrote an article attacking the general. And although the New York Times wrote a fair story, he says, it was deep inside the paper and could hardly have been seen by the same high number of viewers who watched the original broadcast.

Westmoreland's side did not get much publicity until TV Guide published an article disputing the CBS documentary.

``Even then, TV Guide was attacked,'' says Irvine.

``It wasn't until the libel suit was filed and depositions taken that people heard Westmoreland's side.''

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