Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Defaulting on Libel

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Defaulting on Libel

Article excerpt

Massachusetts judge's arrogant default judgment against 'The Boston Globe' creates a dangerous new precedent

Libel is no longer the kind of abusive threat it was a couple of decades ago, when unthinking juries seemed eager to rain Lotto-size awards on anybody who'd ever felt the sting of a cross word from the local newspaper. Just the other day, the invaluable Libel Defense Resource Center (LDRC) reported that news organizations, which once depended on appeals to shake off libel judgments, are now winning more than half of all cases at trial. Even better, fewer cases go to court. Last year, the average award was among the lowest it's been in the 22 years the LDRC has been keeping track.

Unfortunately, newspapers may well end up looking back on the first years of the new century as a golden era -- one that was irretrievably lost in the year 2002. For it's hard, indeed, to exaggerate the mischief wreaked by the judge who presided over Dr. Lois Ayash's defamation and libel suit against The Boston Globe, its former reporter Richard Knox, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The paper had reported inaccurately that Ayash signed a botched chemotherapy dosage order that killed Globe health columnist Betsy Lehman and severely injured another patient in 1994. The Globe long ago corrected that error, but continues to stand by its contention that Ayash "led the team" that administered overdoses over a 10-week period.

Upset that the Globe defendants would not betray the confidential sources who contributed to the story, the trial judge last April simply entered a default judgment against the paper. …

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