BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. If the media see themselves as under siege from all sides --government, Wall Street and public opinion --there is relief at least on one front: the courts. At least, in the arena of libel and privacy law, the pressure seems to be steadily easing. According to a new study by the Media Law Resource Center, news media outlets successfully defended themselves against libel and privacy charges four out of five times in 2002. That's a record for both the lowest number of trials and the highest percentage of media victories in the 22 years the Media Law Resource Center has kept track. Sandy Baron is executive director of the MLRC and she joins me now. Sandy, welcome to OTM!
SANDY BARON: Thank you very much!
BOB GARFIELD: Quantify this all for me, please: five is a low number of verdicts, but what kind of numbers were we looking at in the previous decades?
SANDY BARON: Well, in the 1980s there was an average of a little more than 26 trials each year. Now, it bounced around a little bit, between 1982 in which there were 43 trials and 1987 when there were 17, but for the entire decade, there was an average of 26 per year. And in the 2000's now we're down to about eleven trials per year.
BOB GARFIELD:What's the reason for that? Are judges just more scrupulous about determining what constitutes a legitimate case? Are fewer complaints being filed? Why?
SANDY BARON: We're not actually sure. We do know that media defendants do win a fair number of these cases long before they get to trial. Judges are scrupulous in many instances about dismissing cases that shouldn't have been brought or for which the media has good defenses.
BOB GARFIELD:Is it your judgment, looking at the cases that actually go to trial and looking at the verdicts, that the media are simply fairer than they used to be and more careful or do you think they're simply [LAUGHS] more cowardly and not being as challenging and aggressive in their reporting as they were in the days when there were dozens or scores of cases that went to trial.
SANDY BARON: I think there are a lot of factors at work. Number one, libel in particular has now become a very mature body of law, and as a result, I think it's easier for defendants to win because there's more defenses, if you will, for them to draw upon. I think at the same time plaintiffs are perhaps more reluctant to bring claims because they know that this is an expensive and difficult process. There are other things at work however too. Out in California, for example, they adopted several years ago what they call an "anti-slap statute." Anti-slap statutes now exist in a number of states, but what they are intended to do is make it difficult for plaintiffs to bring frivolous claims against defendants who speak out on public issues. The slap statute in California has probably reduced libel claims, not merely against the press but against ordinary individuals, by a very substantial number. And we believe anti-slap statutes in other jurisdictions may also be reducing claims.
BOB GARFIELD:For cases that do go to trial -- to jury trial -- is there any evidence that juries are becoming more enlightened as to the significance of the First Amendment?
SANDY BARON: Oh, I'd love to think that that's the case. It is true that media defendants over the last two-plus decades that we've been looking at trials are winning more cases at trial, and the vast majority of cases are tried before juries. So either the media has gotten better at explaining the law and indeed how the media operates to juries or juries themselves come to the cases more sensitized about free speech and about how the media operates.
BOB GARFIELD:One of the things we learned in the Jayson Blair fiasco was that the New York Times got surprisingly few complaints from readers because they had, it turned out, the expectation that the newspaper was going to just get it all wrong. Do you think the public's jaundiced eye about the quality of the media have any influence in this whatsoever?
SANDY BARON: Well I found it very troubling that those who found inaccuracies in stories about them or about events that they were involved in didn't undertake to call! They took it to a certain degree as a given. But I think that the reason in part was because they didn't say anything bad about them, they let it slide.
BOB GARFIELD:In other words you might be able to say that someone with blue eyes had green eyes, but if you say that person with blue eyes has green eyes and he embezzled money from his company and you're wrong [LAUGHTER] in that assertion, that he's not going to just-- shrug it off and say "Oh, well, you know - these things happen."
SANDY BARON: I, I think that's right. I, I think you're likely to hear from his lawyer on that one.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Sandy, thank you very much!
SANDY BARON: You are welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Sandy Baron is executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York City.