Journalists have a responsibility to tell the truth. Accordingly, most reporters and editors would like to think, or believe, that they successfully fulfill that duty. In Reckless Disregard, Renata Adler demonstrates that a news organization’s commitment to proving the veracity of a story runs the risk of covering the truth and justifying falsehoods, however.
In fall 1982 and summer 1983 two lawsuits filed in the Southern District of New York tested the nerves of both plaintiffs and defendants – in these instances news organizations Time Magazine and CBS. Adler meticulously chronicled the cases of Sharon v. Time and Westmoreland v. CBS for the New Yorker, and then compiled her reporting – with additional passages and a scathing Coda (epilogue) – in Reckless Disregard.
The “actual malice” standard, established by Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), is the cornerstone of libel suits against the press/media. A libel plaintiff in the U.S. faces an uphill battle and bears the burden of proof; i.e., the defendant does not have to prove innocence. Instead the plaintiff has to prove with clear and convincing evidence that the published “statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”
Israeli Minister Ariel Sharon, therefore, had to prove that the Time’s article, “The Verdict is Guilty,” which suggested that he was responsible for the massacres carried out by Phalangist soldiers on September 17-19, 1982, in Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, Lebanon, were published despite contrary information available to the magazine’s reporters.
General William Westmoreland, the commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, carried the burden of showing that CBS had libeled him in the documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception” by knowingly ignoring hours of interviews and extensive information which demonstrated that, unlike the program’s assertion, he had not tempered with the Order of Battle to draw an optimistic view of the war, hence conspire to trick the government and the people.
Adler raises important questions in Reckless Disregard: is actual malice, originally intended to protect the press’ First Amendment rights, used to justify publishing falsities? What do Time and CBS’ all-out-litigation-war strategy – conducted by the prestigious, aggressive law firm Cravath – say about the truthfulness of their reporting? Who, really, is the victim in these cases – the media or the plaintiffs?
Reckless Disregard presents to the reader, in a matter-of-fact manner, how both cases unfolded, albeit being slightly sympathetic towards the plaintiffs. The record, as presented by Adler, indicates that news organizations can be slanted, that they might have an agenda, or theory, which they believe merits advancing, and that they might drift away from the facts to create more scandalous news/documentaries.
This is all sad, of course, especially to an aspiring journalist. But if you are interested in law, reporting and David-vs.-Goliath scenarios you should consider Reckless Disregard. Adler sure succeeds in showing that a supposed victim (Time and CBS and, consequently, the media’s First Amendment rights) might actually be the aggressor (merciless litigation that resulted in Sharon and Westmoreland to lose credible libel cases). Her narrative of the cases was deemed threatening – to the point that CBS and Cravath tried to intimidate the author and Knopf, her publisher, and stop the publication of Reckless Disregard. Adler seems to have hit the right chords after all.