Jury selection in the $120 million libel suit filed against CBS by Gen. William C. Westmoreland (ret.) began Tuesday morning in Manhattan, in a US Federal District Court room crowded with prospective jurors and the press.
By 11:30 a.m. more than a dozen potential jurors had been excused by Judge Pierre N. Leval after he had asked just three questions to them. The first question was whether or not any juror felt he or she held such deep views or strong opinions about the case that it would be impossible to be fair in judging the case. Three potential jurors were dismissed.
Judge Leval then asked if any jurors had received telephone calls or inquiries asking about the case. None had. The judge also asked if any jurors might be unable to serve the expected length of the trial - he estimated anywhere from 21/2 to 4 months. Several more people were excused.
Twelve jurors and six alternates must be selected, twice the usual size of panels in civil cases.
The controversial trial will focus on whether General Westmoreland was defamed by a 1982 CBS Television documentary that accused him of conspiring to underestimate the size of enemy forces before the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam in order to convince President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the country was capable of winning the war.
On a checklist given to prospective jurors listing the kinds of questions that would be asked, Judge Leval included such issues as military service, stock ownership, courses in journalism or constitutional law, strong dislike for either newspapers or the military, and preference of the individual over corporations. The list also noted that jurors might be asked if they had read many novels about the war, and specifically if they had read the TV Guide article ''Anatomy of a Smear,'' which charged that CBS had been unfair or had broken rules in making the documentary.
Defendants in the case are CBS News; George Crile, producer of the documentary; Mike Wallace, a CBS correspondent who anchored the program; and Samuel A. Adams, a former CIA analyst who was a paid consultant for CBS News for the documentary.
On Friday, Westmoreland, who commanded United States forces in Vietnam, decided to drop Van Gordon Sauter, former president of CBS news, from the suit and to narrow his case to contentions that Westmoreland misinformed President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The suit formerly also listed Congress, the public, and the press as being misinformed. Attorneys for both sides said that the simplification could speed up the long-awaited trial.
During the jury selection, Westmoreland sat in the courtroom with his lawyer, Dan M. Burt. Sitting with CBS News attorney David M. Boies was Mr. Crile. Throughout the trial, which will once again bring the Vietnam war to the front pages and television screens of the media, both sides are expected to call high-level government witnesses, including key Johnson administration officials.
Because Westmoreland is a public figure, he must prove that CBS had ''reckless disregard for the truth'' when it produced the documentary, according to standards adopted in a 1964 libel decision by the US Supreme Court. Leval told the potential jurors that Westmoreland contends that he was defamed, and that the defendants knew their accusations were false and that they acted with reckless disregard for the facts.
CBS stands behind its documentary, though a network investigation of the program resulted in the suspension of Mr. Crile for violating CBS guidelines.
First Amendment watchers say this case could affect journalists throughout the news media. Large libel verdicts and out-of-court settlements have already had a chilling effect on investigative reporting, say observers.