High Cost of Libel

October 23, 1981

Report Outline
Era of ‘Mega-Judgments’
Evolution of Libel Law
Outlook for Libel Issue
Special Focus

Era of ‘Mega-Judgments’

Recent Multimillion-Dollar Libel Awards

Libel, ever the publisher's nightmare, became front-page news last March when entertainer Carol Burnett won a $1.6 million judgment against The National Enquirer. The spotlight beamed on the Burnett case illuminated not a singular incident, but an apparent trend that adds a new and costly dimension to the already thorny problem of libel litigation. Juries seem more willing to “punish” offending publications with multimillion-dollar libel judgments. As one reporter described it, we may have entered a new era: “the era of mega-judgments.”

The verdict against the Enquirer did not in itself raise much controversy, even within a journalistic community that is jealously protective of its right to publish. The Enquirer, a Florida-based tabloid specializing in sensational stories about celebrities, is disparaged by many journalists as a “scandal sheet.”

Nor did the case break any new legal ground. Burnett claimed that a 1976 Enquirer gossip item, portraying her as raucous, rude and possibly drunk at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, had subjected her to ridicule, caused her emotional distress, and damaged her credibility as a spokeswoman against alcoholism. As a result of the Supreme Court's decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) and subsequent rulings, “public figures” such as Burnett must prove “actual malice,” or reckless disregard for the truth on the part of the publisher. Burnett did so to the satisfaction of the jury, presenting evidence that the Enquirer's editors and writers had reason to believe the story was false before they published it.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Journalism, Newspapers, and the Media
Jan. 28, 2022  Misinformation and the Media
Oct. 02, 2020  Social Media Platforms
Sep. 18, 2020  The News Media
Aug. 24, 2018  Conspiracy Theories
Jun. 09, 2017  Trust in Media
May 30, 2014  Digital Journalism
May 03, 2013  Media Bias
Apr. 26, 2013  Free Speech at Risk
Apr. 12, 2013  Combat Journalism
Nov. 2010  Press Freedom
Oct. 08, 2010  Journalism Standards in the Internet Age
Feb. 05, 2010  Press Freedom
Mar. 27, 2009  Future of Journalism Updated
Jun. 09, 2006  Blog Explosion Updated
Jan. 20, 2006  Future of Newspapers
Apr. 08, 2005  Free-Press Disputes
Oct. 15, 2004  Media Bias
Oct. 10, 2003  Media Ownership Updated
Dec. 25, 1998  Journalism Under Fire
Jun. 05, 1998  Student Journalism
Sep. 20, 1996  Civic Journalism
Sep. 23, 1994  Courts and the Media
Aug. 24, 1990  Hard Times at the Nation's Newspapers
Jan. 19, 1990  Finding Truth in the Age of ‘Infotainment’
Aug. 18, 1989  Libel Law: Finding the Right Balance
Jun. 06, 1986  Magazine Trends
Oct. 12, 1984  News Media and Presidential Campaigns
Jul. 15, 1983  State of American Newspapers
Oct. 23, 1981  High Cost of Libel
Dec. 23, 1977  Media Reforms
Mar. 11, 1977  News Media Ownership
Jun. 21, 1974  Access to the Media
Dec. 20, 1972  Newsmen's Rights
Aug. 16, 1972  Blacks in the News Media
Dec. 15, 1971  Magazine Industry Shake-Out
Jul. 18, 1969  Competing Media
Sep. 02, 1964  Politicians and the Press
Dec. 04, 1963  Libel Suits and Press Freedom
Jan. 09, 1963  Newspaper Mergers
Dec. 20, 1961  Reading Boom: Books and Magazines
Dec. 02, 1959  Privileged Communications
Apr. 25, 1956  Newsprint Deficit
May 06, 1953  Government and the Press
Sep. 21, 1948  Press and State
Sep. 05, 1947  Newsprint Supply
Mar. 26, 1947  Facsimile Newspapers
Dec. 10, 1945  World Press Freedom
May 01, 1940  New Experiments in Newspaper-Making
Nov. 04, 1933  Press Freedom Under the Recovery Program
Freedom of Speech and Press
Journalism and the News