An equation dangerous to the practice of democracy. Investigative journalism = ``muckraking'' = libel (``actual malice'').

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THIS is an equation suggested by a recent appellate court ruling in a newspaper libel case. And it is sending chills down media spines and alarming other defenders of the First Amendment. It should also raise the concerns of the reading, listening, and viewing public, as well, who rely on responsible media representatives to keep them informed about the doings and misdoings in both government and the private sector.

What two of three Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals judges said, in effect, is that newspapers who relentlessly dig out wrongdoing tend to earn themselves reputations as muckrakers. And, consequently, they may be particularly vulnerable to libel judgments.

The appellate tribunal used this rationale to reinstate a lower-court jury verdict against the Washington Post for libeling William P. Tavoulareas when he was president of the Mobil Corporation. The trial judge had overridden the jury after examining the record and concluding that there was no proof of malice in terms of reckless disregard for the truth.

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However, District of Columbia Appellate Court Judge George E. MacKinnon saw it differently. He said that the newspaper and its reporter had set out to ``get'' the Mobil official and had deliberately ``slanted, rejected, and ignored evidence contrary to the false premise of the story.''

But Judge MacKinnon went even further (and this is what alarms the press) by suggesting that a publication's unswerving dedication to unearthing improprieties -- what he termed ``muckraking'' -- ``certainly is relevant to whether a newspaper's employees acted in reckless disregard of whether a statement is false or not.''

In other words, what the court was saying is that too much crusading could be a dangerous thing -- for the press. It might inevitably lead to abuse and result in libel sanctions.

Judge J. Skelly Wright, who dissented in this decision, was troubled over two things: the apparent reliance on ``muckraking as proof of actual malice''; and what he saw as the court assuming the role ``[of] some kind of journalism review seminar, offering our observations on contemporary journalism and journalists.''

This decision will likely be reviewed by a full 10-member panel of this same appellate court. And the matter could ultimately end up before the United States Supreme Court. If this happens, the longstanding Sullivan standard for determining libel for public figures (in terms of ``actual malice'') could be redefined.

Before that happens, it might behoove the media not only to bolster its credibility with the judiciary but with the public at large as well.

And an initial formidable task might be to challenge the assumption of the equation: investigative journalism = muckraking = libel.

Investigative reporting seems to be basically acceptable to the public. However, according to a survey on press credibility, commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), a heavy majority of those interviewed (61 percent) believe that investigative reporting is worthwhile ``only if something happens to correct the problem.''

``Muckraking'' has a negative sound. But its definitions don't always connote what most would term nefarious activity.

The term ``muckrake'' stems from a reference made by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to the man with the muckrake in Bunyan's ``Pilgrim's Progress.'' He is seen looking downward, preoccupied with raking dirt. ``The men with muckrakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society,'' President Roosevelt reportedly said, ``but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.''

One dictionary defines muckrake as ``to search for and publicize in newspapers, etc. real or alleged corruption by public officials, businessmen, etc.'' This would refer back to a group of crusading journalists -- Lincoln Steffens among them -- of the early 20th century who were dedicated to exposing political corruption and abuse.

In this context, muckraking may be seen as synonymous with investigative reporting. But does this lead to a propensity for libel, as Judge MacKinnon suggests? One hopes it does not.

However, the public is dubious. The ASNE study confirms earlier surveys which show widespread distrust of the media, including low esteem for those who write, edit, and publish newspapers. There is also a broad feeling that the press is insensitive to ordinary people -- and sometimes shows little concern about harming them in pursuit of a story.

It is also significant that while most people would accept a need for investigative journalism, they also want results -- solutions which lead to reform.

Given these findings, would it not be well for newspapers, and the media in general, to be more solicitous of the public they serve? And to focus on suggesting solutions to the problems they unearth?

The ASNE study seems to suggest this. It states: ``Newspapers can affect how they are perceived. They would do well to enhance their role as a populist institution -- `my paper' instead of `that paper.' ''

This report also stresses that the press must do a better job explaining what they do, how they do it, and why they do it to gain public confidence.

``Most of all, newspapers should practice good, basic journalism,'' the study says, ``and they should show respect for the people they cover and the people they serve.'' A Thursday column

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