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Jury's Libel Message: Just the Facts, Ma'am

June 17, 1993

When a federal jury in San Francisco found that journalist Janet Malcolm had misquoted and libeled psychoanalyst Jeffrey M. Masson in The New Yorker a decade ago, the matter of monetary damages was unexpectedly left for a later date. Too bad, many writers and editors said, for this is one embarrassing case they wish would go away.

Which is not to say journalists haven't been paying attention. Conversations left the clear impression that a lot of people in the ink world have been thinking hard about Malcolm and Masson. Here are some of their thoughts:

One point of view is that Malcolm operated by her own set of indefensible standards--for example, weaving a seamless quote out of remarks that the flamboyant Masson, former curator of the Freud Archives, had made at different times.

"I know a lot of New Yorker writers who wouldn't dream of doing that," said Tom Goldstein, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

But not so fast. An editor at a leading magazine who asked not to be named said "there's nothing wrong" with stitching together quoted remarks from this day and that day, if the statements pertain to the same subject.

The jury concluded that five quotes attributed to Masson were fabricated by Malcolm, who appeared to have compressed lengthier statements. But when you get right down to it, quotes are "cleaned up" all the time--if only in small ways. As former New York Post editor Jerry Nachman put it, "People who don't speak correct English are usually given correct English whenever they're quoted in a newspaper."

The New Yorker was essentially cleared when the jury said that the writer was an independent contractor and that the magazine had not acted with "reckless disregard" for accuracy.

The case will prompt magazines to re-evaluate their fact-checking systems. Writers, have your tapes and notes in order. Remember: A quote is a quote is a quote. Said Ellen Levine, editor-in-chief of Redbook: "It's a reminder to journalists to portray, to the best of their ability, events as they happened."

"The Malcolm case is more important as a journalistic issue than a legal one," said Terry McDonell, editor-in-chief of Esquire.

So, the thinking goes, Masson's beef with Malcolm should never have been allowed to go this far. "They should have found another way to resolve it," Goldstein said. "I don't think federal court should be the place for a seminar on journalistic practices."

Said Nachman: "It's bad for all journalists that she lost the case, but it's bad for all journalists that she got herself there in the first place."

On the Racks

Designer Roger Black's cleaned-up, brightened-up, opened-up make-over of the 71-year-old Foreign Affairs has bowed with the summer issue, whose articles include a call for reinvigorated journalism in the post-Cold War era from Henry A. Grunwald, Time's former editor-in-chief. . . .

Out, the general-interest magazine for gays and lesbians, marks its first anniversary with the just-released July book, the biggest to date. Forty of the 124 pages are ads.

The issue contains an excerpt from contributing writer Michelangelo Signorile's "Queer in America" and a photo spread, "A Day in Out America." Also, the every-other-monthly plans to publish 10 issues in 1994.

B Matter

Get ready for a Pantheon Books tie-in to "The Who's Tommy," which will feature a history of the rock opera as well as the story of the Who and text from the band's Pete Townshend, writer of the Tony-winning score. Pantheon reportedly won the book, which it plans to publish in October (with promotional help from Townshend), over stiff competition from other publishers. . . .

Dan Strone, a William Morris literary agent to the stars, intends to shop around to publishers planned autobiographies from singers Aretha Franklin and Tony Bennett as well as quarterback great Johnny Unitas (the latter with agency colleague Robert Gottlieb).

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