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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Sloppy, Libelous Reporting

     When the Philip Morris Corporation sued the ABC television network for libel over a 1994 ABC report alleging that nicotine was intentionally added to cigarettes, ABC, which was by no means clearly in the wrong, decided to settle the case before going to court. They issued an apology for one statement and agreed to pay legal fees, which had already amounted to $15 million.

     Carol Burnett's 1996 libel suit against The National Enquirer did go to court after the Enquirer published a retraction. Although Burnett's initial $1.6 million award (which was lowered on appeal) was far smaller than Philip Morris's legal fees, it was a substantial victory of a public figure. [For a public figure to win a libel suit, the plaintiff must prove not only falsehood and defamation but malicious intent on behalf of the defendant.] The Enquirer had implied that Burnett had drunk too much at a French restaurant in Washington, D.C., and had "become boisterous," eventually arguing with Henry Kissinger and "disturbing other guests." The Enquirer simply didn't have the facts to back up its story. According to Alex Beam of The Atlantic Monthly, "The case had a plethora of bad facts. In a deposition a Florida-based editor of the Enquirer said that he distrusted the source of the original report and had rewritten the report himself. A reporter testified that he had tried to fact check the item one hour before deadline and failed. Two of the restaurant's employees came forward and said they had told Enquirer reporters that Burnett hadn't been drunk at all." Under scrutiny, it was clear that the Enquirer editors had reason to believe that the story was flawed and decided to publish anyway.

Sarah Harrison Smith, The Fact Checker's Bible, 2004

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