Demonetize libel

AT a cost of $6 million, General Sharon and Time magazine had their day in court. After weeks of testimony General Westmoreland's $120 million libel suit against CBS is over, the general having withdrawn it. These cases against publishers and broadcasters are not only costly but a potentially destructive matter. A new system of media justice is needed. Libel suits should be demonetized: The integrity of the journalist should be the sole stake in deciding whether a subject has been harmed. Massive court costs and punitive threats are not necessary to establish for the public the rightness or wrongness of a journalistic report. By the judgment of truth, the journalist's future credibility will be strengthened or weakened. The subject claiming libel will stand or fall by the same test.

The present system inspires litigation as a reply to reportage. Many hail the Westmoreland suit as a means of balancing the content of CBS's Vietnam telecast. It is imaginable that others with opposite political sensitivities may sue the same ``60 Minutes'' for allegedly defaming ministers, and the National Council of Churches, for supporting left-wing terrorism.

Although the mass media can libel a citizen massively, it is folly to argue that the crippling of a channel of public information is the intention of the law. Yet present libel litigation supports that fear. Most media do not have the resources of Time or CBS.

The never-ending tension between press freedom and the check on license which libel law provides is a necessary function of a free society. A person who believes himself injured by the media may place a multimillion-dollar price tag on the alleged harm. Even if the claim of damage is far less, both parties may sustain costly legal and court fees. At the end of the struggle, the best the initiator can hope for is the clearing of his name, repayment of costs, and perhaps some added award.

In a high percentage of libel cases, however, the publisher or broadcaster loses initially but wins on appeal, or at least has extravagant cash settlements vastly reduced.

It comes to this: libel litigation, while threatening the destruction of public information media by punitive settlements, actually hampers the media most by costly and time-consuming court proceedings. That, in turn, has a dampening effect on news coverage and analysis, and it is not necessarily in the public interest.

If accuracy and unlibelous publication and broadcasting are primary objectives, isn't there a better way to achieve them than by making punitive cash settlements the yardstick for truth and fair comment?

The professional, nonlegal approach to truthful reporting represented by the defunct National News Council -- a nonlegal jury of media peers -- never received a fair trial. The media which rejected the council must now recognize that the law then remains the court of first resort. Yet severe financial burden should be removed for both litigants so that truth becomes the primal issue.

Is it not sufficient to insist that a communicator defend a statement in public and the loser be suffered to pay court costs? Such costs should be further reduced and kept far less than punitive settlements now sought. Some communal fund could also pay costs of an unsuccessful plaintiff whose claim of alleged libel had been deemed worthy of testing.

Libel litigation then should be severely streamlined. Perhaps the small-claims or family courts suggest the model. They provide low-cost, relatively lawyer-free procedures in fields of specialized law. A ``libel court'' would be run by a particularly qualified judge with a staff able to deal fairly with the content and procedures of published or broadcast material.

The libel court could remove the financial burden that poses a threat to First Amendment rights. The person who believes he has been dealt with maliciously would have a far less costly recourse. The public would learn the truth. And where libel has been proved, editors and employers may be expected to deal appropriately with the erring journalist. For credibility, not dollars, should be the news media's and the plaintiff's most precious possession. Proper reporting of the truth, not punitive settlements, should be the objective of the libel court.

Leonard R. Sussman is executive director of Freedom House.

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