CBS libel trial could cool press investigations

In the Manhattan federal district court, jut-jawed Gen. William C. Westmoreland listens to testimony in his $120 million libel suit against CBS News and three co-defendents.

A string of government and military officials who were center stage during the long, unpopular Vietnam war have been testifying on behalf of the retired general, who maintains he was libeled by a 1982 CBS documentary. Westmoreland's lawyer, Dan M. Burt, is expected to call him to the stand soon. Westmoreland was commander of United States forces in Vietnam from 1964 through 1968.

Interest in the trial brings a large group of reporters and spectators to the courtroom daily. But outside the courtroom, the case is also being closely watched by legal experts, political scientists, and, not surprisingly, by other journalists.

The jury must consider the veracity of the allegations in the documentary, that charged Westmoreland and others with conspiring to ''suppress and alter'' estimates of enemy force strength before the 1968 Tet offensive.

If they find the documentary's charges were false, the jury must decide if CBS and the three codefendents proceeded with ''reckless disregard'' for the truth while making the program.

The questions highlighted by this trial are expected to have profound implications for the press outside the courtroom, news media experts say. More than ever, they contend, the media and its reporters will have to face the question of whether they are guilty of bias and distortion, as critics frequently charge.

Other questions are bound to arise. Are reporters' ethical guidelines and the editorial checks and balances within news organizations enough to ensure accuracy and fairness?

Will this trial, and others like it, have a ''chilling effect'' on reporting, or lead to a helpful discussion of reporting methods?

Mitchell Stephens, an associate professor of journalism at New York University (NYU), says he doesn't think anything positive will come out of the trial, and says that it is a ''scary thing'' for journalism.

There is, however, sometimes a ''tremendous temptation to quote out of context ... to choose sources in a unrepresentational fashion,'' Professor Stephens acknowledges.

But, he adds, ''I don't think the legal system is the appropriate check.'' News organizations themselves must keep watch over current employees and those they are hiring. He predicts that the trial will have a negative impact.

''I would be very surprised if there wasn't a hesitancy to attempt concrete investigative reporting'' as a result of this case, Stephens says.

But Michael McDonald of the American Legal Foundation, one of several conservative groups assisting private individuals in libel cases against the press, cites a recent survey of television, radio, and print reporters on the effects of the increased number of libel suits.

Mr. McDonald says that only 4 percent of reporters queried said they were not pursuing some stories because of the danger of libel. Nearly 40 percent of the reporters said more checking of facts and sources was being done.

''I think we are seeing positive results,'' McDonald says. If not for individuals like Westmoreland, he says, he does not think ''we would be seeing this type of change.''

Laura Wessner of ''ABC News Closeups'' says the broadcasting company is conducting its news operations in the same way it always has - including checks and balances, from researcher to the executive level.

News copy for documentaries goes through ''many, many hands.'' The standard, which has not changed simply because of libel suits, is to be very careful, Ms. Wessner says.

Steve Talbot has produced half a dozen documentaries at KQED, San Francisco's public television station, on subjects ranging from religious fundamentalists in Guatemala to writer Dashiell Hammett.

Mr. Talbot says he is unsure what effect trials like the Westmoreland case will have on television reporting.

''It's not likely to intimidate anyone here,'' he says, adding that his station has an editorial scrutiny equal to that of many newspapers and magazines.

McDonald says most television stations' internal guidelines are often quite good, but need to be more carefully followed.

One former network newsman, now working at a university, says there was often not enough questioning of editorial content at his network.

Sometimes when the rough cut of a program was shown to higher ups, it was technical aspects of the film, and not accuracy, that were being watched closely , he says. ''Too many people who came up through technical jobs are now making editorial judgments.''

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