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Reckless Disregard by Renata Adler (Knopf: $16.95; 243 pp.)

December 07, 1986|David Shaw | Shaw writes on the media for The Times

Six years ago, in reviewing a collection of Pauline Kael's film criticism, Renata Adler stunned the New York literati by proclaiming the work "piece by piece, line by line, without interruption, worthless."

Now, Adler has taken on two other giants of the Eastern media establishment, corporate giants this time--Time magazine and CBS.

Adler isn't nearly as kind to them as she was to Kael.

Chapter by chapter, line by line, virtually without interruption, Adler pronounces the journalism practiced by Time and CBS in the cases at hand worse than worthless. She finds them arrogant, hypocritical, irresponsible, careless and dishonest. And she makes a very persuasive argument.

Adler is a journalist, a novelist, an essayist and the possessor of a law degree. "Reckless Disregard" is her detailed dissection of two libel suits that unfolded, more or less simultaneously, in the same New York courthouse, beginning in October 1984. The cases:

--Gen. William C. Westmoreland's suit against CBS, accusing the network of having libeled him in a 1982 broadcast that charged "a conspiracy at the highest levels of American military intelligence" to deliberately distort and minimize enemy troop strength during the Vietnam War, thus misleading the President and Congress into thinking the United States was winning a war it was actually losing.

--Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's suit against Time, accusing the magazine of having libeled him in a 1983 story that said he had "reportedly discussed . . . the need to take . . . revenge" with Lebanese Christian leaders just before a Phalangist massacre of several hundred civilians in two refugee camps.

Westmoreland ultimately withdrew his suit, before the case went to the jury, and settled for a bland joint statement with CBS that included no apology to him, only an acknowledgement that he had not been "unpatriotic or disloyal in performing his duties as he saw them." Since CBS had never accused Westmoreland of being either unpatriotic or disloyal, Adler rightly dismisses the statement as "irremediably trivial," containing "no concessions whatever on the part of CBS."

Sharon's case went to the jury, and the jury found that Time's story was defamatory and false but that Time had not libeled Sharon, that it had not been guilty of "actual malice"--i.e., that Sharon had not "proved by clear and convincing evidence" that Time had known its article was false or that it had had "serious doubts as to its truth" before publishing it.

The jury in Sharon vs. Time took the unusual step, however, of issuing an amplifying statement saying they had found that "certain Time employees, particularly correspondent David Halevy (who had provided the information that Time used on Sharon) acted negligently and carelessly."

It is unfortunate that such shoddy journalism must be defended in order to safeguard so cherished a value as freedom of the press. Adler's scathing account of the behavior of Time and CBS--and, especially, of Halevy and his (sort of) CBS counterpart, producer George Crile--almost makes one ashamed to be a journalist.

CBS, she says, "took a thesis; found witnesses more or less to support it, interviewed those witnesses, and cut those parts of the interviews which did not support the thesis . . . rehearsed and re-interviewed some friendly witnesses" and either ignored, cut or distorted the testimony of witnesses who disagreed with the CBS thesis.

In the case of Time and Sharon, Adler catches Halevy in one inconsistency after another, one disingenuous ratiocination after another, as he tries--in his deposition and in court--to explain (or to obfuscate) his (supposed) sources for his "information" on Sharon.

During his deposition, for example, Halevy was asked how many sources he had for an internal memo he wrote that ultimately became the crucial passage in the story over which Sharon sued. In the course of that day, Adler writes, he variously answered "between eight and 15"; "I will say many"; "Yes, two prime sources. I don't recall if there were any more"; "But to be exact with you, I will say there were three prime sources."

Not surprisingly, Adler's book has caused enormous controversy in East Coast media and political circles. CBS and Time wrote lengthy letters of protest when the book first appeared, in essentially the same form, as a two-part series in the New Yorker. Writers in The Nation and the Village Voice excoriated the book itself. (Alexander Cockburn, writing in The Nation, saw the book as "part of a continuing conservative campaign . . . to discredit . . . even the miserably feeble attempts of the mainstream media such as CBS to criticize the U.S. government's conduct in Vietnam.") The New York Times Book Review and Washington Post Book World both put the book on its cover. Manhattan Inc. published a 14-page cover story on the entire affair.

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