Sharon vs. Time

IN major battles over libel, as in other wars, neither the winner nor the loser survives entirely unscathed, and both sides can often claim some measure of vindication. In Ariel Sharon's suit against Time magazine, the former Israeli defense minister's lawyers failed to convince the jury that Time had maliciously or recklessly -- that is, knowingly, deliberately -- printed a story accusing Sharon of discussing with Lebanese Phalangist leaders a need to take revenge on inhabitants of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps before the September 1982 massacre. The jury earlier had found the specific accusation false. It found that Sharon had been publicly defamed by the story. In an unusual reprimand, the foreman of the six-member jury also read a statement rebuking Time's staff for negligence and carelessness in its handling of the story. But when the jury discerned no actual malice by Time, which would have been required for a finding of libel, Sharon's legal campaign fell short of its $50 million goal in the libel case.

Mr. Sharon may have had his own purposes for bringing the suit. An Israeli commission had already criticized him for indirect responsibility in the massacre, which led to his resignation as defense minister. Many Israeli citizens hold Sharon heavily responsible for the Lebanon invasion itself, which cost many Israeli lives, undermined Israel's economy, and embittered the public's spirit. Those already inclined to rally behind Sharon may find in the outcome of the libel trial an excuse to do so. Certainly Mr. Sharon, in taking on Time, was following his familiar practice of seizing the opportunity for attack. But no self-proclaimed ``moral victory'' in a New York City courtroom that focused on a single paragraph in a single Time magazine story should weigh more in the balance than the Israeli public's larger impression of the general's career.

The rulings and rebukes over Time's journalistic practices, whatever Time's own interpretation of the paragraph in question, showed that Sharon inflicted casualties on the reputation of Time. Much of the public may read the result as reflecting on the press generally. The press must use such challenges as that presented by the Sharon case to set more exacting standards for the future.

The Sharon outcome protects the rights of the press to pursue the truth about the acts of public figures, within the constraint of avoiding malicious or reckless disregard for the truth.

The ``truth'' in matters like the Sharon case, however, or in the current Westmoreland-CBS lawsuit, can involve a far broader context than what gets argued in court. Both Sharon and William C. Westmoreland are generals. They were central figures in unpopular wars. The news media were thought by supporters of those wars to have frustrated and maligned national efforts.

Perhaps journalists can try to do too much with their trade. Attempting to dramatize history's fateful events in terms of the decisions of a few people at a given moment may inevitably distort the collisions and consequences of forces far vaster -- between differing views of national interests, methods, and values, as represented in the Vietnam and Lebanon endeavors.

And in a world of competing media giants, the temptation to sharpen findings for dramatic effect is another danger.

Lawsuits like the one brought by Mr. Sharon can hardly be welcomed. The cost was $3 million in lawyers' fees alone. One can argue either way, that the case will prompt more or fewer big libel prosecutions.

And yet, the issues of the general's culpability and the magazine's accountability were openly explored in a court of law. Mr. Sharon was right ``to thank the American people'' for a system that permitted him to defend his reputation, as well as the magazine its practices, before a jury that closely followed the necessarily rigorous requirements for proving libel.

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