Magazine article Editor & Publisher

There's Always That Worry

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

There's Always That Worry

Article excerpt

It's a rare publisher or editor who doesn't shudder when envisioning being embroiled in a legal scenario the likes of "Chiquita," "Food Lion," "Richard Jewell," "Ride-Alongs," "60 Minutes." The names resonate like those of battles of yore.

The environment for clashes is riper than ever. Jury awards for libel in the 1990s doubled to half a billion dollars from the previous decade. Polls show that public (read: jury) skepticism over the media's power is at more than 50%.

Adding to the tension is that in recent years judges have given their nod to a new brand of media lawsuit: the news-gathering tort, in which lawyers seek to ferret out misconduct committed by the media in the course of getting information -- and for which the truth is no defense. It's a claim capable of torpedoing a newsroom's reputation.

Yet, in a profession so rich with associations, groups, and organizations, there's no "Media Plaintiff Attorneys' Bar," no media- plaintiff attorney conventions. And nowhere, as one media-plaintiff attorney quipped, will you discover a "Society for the Preservation of Reputations." There isn't even a newsletter or Web page.

Those who do dedicate a portion of their practice to taking swipes at the Fourth Estate are so elusive and their actions so sporadic that in tracking them down for this story, no one person could identify more than just a few lawyers who regularly file suits against the press.*

Of those found, none makes a full-time living of suing the press.

Still, their threats loom over newsrooms everywhere. And, until lately, little has been known about the attorneys who have masterminded these conquests. Who are the guerrilla strategists conducting these campaigns? What are the tactics they're using? What is there to fear? The answers have gone largely unexposed -- until now.

Collectively, these counsels count among the most powerful legal foes facing the press today. …

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