by Renata Adler
Alfred A. Knopf; 243 pp.; $16.95.
THE FLIP SIDE of the old saw about politics making strange bed-fellows is that it can also make weird sparring partners. In June Renata Adler published two long articles in successive issues of The New Yorker on the libel trials of General William Westmoreland v. CBS and General Ariel Sharon v. Time Magazine. The pieces were a full-scale assault on the libel laws and a scathing attack on the two media giants for bungling--and then vehemently defending--their stories on the two former commandants.
Implicit in Adler's offensive against Time, CBS and Cravath, Swaine and Moore--the giant New York City law firm which defended both media conglomerates--was a defense of the two generals, whom nobody particularly likes. CBS and Time merely confirmed many people's worst suspicions about Sharon and Westmoreland when reporting allegations of gross naughtiness on both their parts.
Reckless Disregard, like the trials it examines, is provocative but not very exciting stuff. Adler spent more than a year poring over transcripts of the trial and pre-trial depositions. Too often the book gets bogged down in the minutiae of the proceedings. More interesting is the controversy that has developed over Adler and her book.
Soon after Adler's articles appeared in The New Yorker, CBS publicized a 49-page, point-by-point counterattack. Adler's charges, CBS wrote to New Yorker editor William Shawn, were "plainly false, gross misrepresentations and distortions of the record." A few weeks later, the editor-in-chief of Time sent Shawn a similar letter. Publication of the articles in book form was delayed as lawyers pored over CBS's and Time's accusations and Adler's rebuttals. Meanwhile, one of the intelligence analysts who testifed at the Westmoreland trial himself sued Adler for libel.
This is where it gets interesting. Around the same time CBS delivered its response, media critics in the lefty press began taking Adler to task. "Her reporting was sloppy and her conclusions absurd," wrote The Nation's Alexander Cockburn, who should know. Geoffrey Stokes of The Village Voice chimed in with similar sentiments, calling Adler's work "dishonest at its core." These words, of course, are reminiscient of those of the capitalist chieftans of CBS and Time.
So what we have is a sort of unholy alliance between the left-leaning media and Big Media against Adler, The New Yorker, the military and Big Law. William Safire, The New York Times' resident right-winger, also got into the act recently. He gave the "offended media giants, radical hatchet men and suing spooks" 40 lashes with a wet noodle for suppressing publication of her book--something media-types, he said, should be the last to do.
BUT, ALAS, AS it is now being reviewed, the book was obviously published. What, then, is this brouhaha about?
To begin: CBS aired a 90-minute documentary in January 1982 accusing Westmoreland of overseeing "a conspiracy at the highest levels of American military intelligence" during the Vietnam War. The goal of this conspiracy, CBS said, was "to suppress and alter critical intelligence on the enemy" by reducing intelligence estimates of the number of North Vietnamese soldiers streaming into South Vietnam in the five months leading up to the Tet Offensive. In short, CBS accused Westmoreland & Co. of pulling a treasonous fast one on the American people.
In February of 1983, Time did a cover story on the final report of the Israeli commission investigating the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. Time asserted that there was a secret "Appendix B" to the commission's report which claimed that Sharon spoke with Lebanese Christian leaders about "the need...to take revenge" on the Palestinians for the assassination of President Bashir Gemayel.
Even generals don't like to be accused of betraying their soldiers in the field or inciting troops to go on a murderous rampage against civilians. So, both men took the offending news organizations to court.
THERE WAS NEVER much doubt that Sharon or Westmoreland--who asked for awards of $50 million and $100 million respectively--were in court for the money. They were in court to salvage their damaged reputations. As it turns out, both Time and CBS were on very shaky ground.
Time published its story on the word of a sleazy, duplicitous correspondent in Israel--one who, a few years earlier, had been told by the magazine to clean up his act. There was no "Appendix B."
CBS published as "news" a documentary custom-made by a network producer to fit his conspiracy theories about the Vietnam War. He had no qualms, it seems, about splicing together footage of questions and answers that didn't really follow each other, harassing and coaching witnesses or disregarding impressive sources who contradicted his thesis.
That's all not well and bad, and Adler gets no argument from anyone for criticizing Time's sloppiness and CBS's unethical journalistic practices. She is also on solid ground criticizing the overly agressive tactics of Cravath lawyers and the decision by both defendants to defend to the hilt stories they knew were far from unimpeachable.
While the claims of CBS and Time were declared to be unfounded, the courts did not find them guilty of "actual malice" or of a "reckless disregard" for the truth. Hence, they were not guilty of libel. Adler writes that such a standard of libel is incoherent. When calling for a reinterpretation of the libel laws, however, she is not very convincing--or credible.
Big Media may well be unjustifiably arrogant and self-confident. But does Adler really want to make it easier for plaintiffs to win libel suits? Time and CBS can afford Cravath's impressive services. But what about the Podunk Daily Herald? In a "coda" to the book Adler does acknowledge that any changes in the libel laws, especially under the new Supreme Court, would likely be a change for the worse. What she doesn't mention is an interesting, and relevant, bit of her past.
Adler is particularly critical of the extra difficulty "public figures" have in winning libel suits. This inspired her critics to shish Adler with her own kebob stick. Why? Well, before either the Westmoreland or Sharon trial began, Adler filed a libel suit against the Washington Journalism Review.
The case was dismissed in September, but Adler would have had an easier libel standard to meet had she not been categorized by the court as: a public figure. It's quite surprising, isn't it, that the furious press critic who wrote Reckless Disregard did not think to include a disclaimer about her own involvement in libel proceedings?