In editorial offices across the 50 states, investigative stories are being discarded or ignored. Facts that should be laid out on the front pages are being suppressed. Newspapers that once uncovered scandals are telling their reporters, "Let someone else stick his neck out this time."
In Ohio, an investigative reporter obtained affidavits and tapes from witnesses who confessed to bribing a local judge. His newspaper wasn't interested.
In New York, two reporters uncovered evidence that a federal official was stealing supplies from his office to run his private business. They couldn't get the story published. In Oregon, a reporter told me that his newspaper had rejected a story about corrupt practices of a local football coach.
Several newspapers were offered documentary evidence that a religious cult is engaged in criminal activities. Not one would touch it. One editor told me that he's no longer willing to publish exposes of the mob. Another admitted that he would hesitate to investigate a corrupt official.
What in the world is going on? In the 1970s, the news media sizzled with investigative fervor; it was the decade of crusading reporters who chased after investigative stories with uncommon zeal, not always getting their facts straight in the scramble. They produced expose after expose for an audience that was losing its savor for scandal.
Meanwhile, judges, taking their cue from the Supreme Court that President Richard M. Nixon left behind, began to put the adversary media in a bottle. They issued rulings that obstructed media inquiry and encouraged libel suits.
The effect is to puncture holes in the Constitution, which guarantees the people an alternative to the official version of events. It is no longer possible for the media to expose criminal conspiracies, political scandals and government wrongdoing without risking protracted libel suits.
The cost of defending such lawsuits has become so prohibitive that only news giants can afford to criticize and condemn. Even the CBS television network probably will think twice before it criticizes the conduct of another general. The network spent about $100,000 a month in 1983 to fight retired general William C. Westmoreland's libel suit. This figure soared to about $250,000 a month after the case went to trial.
Not only thin-skinned American generals are apt to sue their media critics; Israel's Gen. Ariel Sharon also sought redress in the U.S. courts after Time magazine published a critical account of his actions in Lebanon. Even former prime minister Morarji Desai of India, who was offended by a brief reference in Seymour Hersh's latest book, found an American lawyer to file a libel suit.
Avenging judges and juries also are imposing preposterous penalties. According to a study of 80 libel trials by the Libel Defense Resource Center, the average award was more than $2.1 million.
The clear intent of many multimillion-dollar libel actions is to intimidate news media and discourage critical inquiry. The tragedy for America is that the strategy is succeeding. The media may rail against bureaucratic secrecy, political cover-up and judicial hostility, but the great graveyard of important stories can now be found in harried newsrooms.