NOT LONG AGO, there was an episode on the Lou Grant show about a strike at the Los Angeles Tribune. The cast of characters was familiar -- the woman publisher, the labor negotiator who cared more about money then people, the striker who had a heart attack on the picket line, the dictatorial union leader and apathetic newsroom personnel who didn't know what was going on in the printers' labor negotiations until a strike was upon them. Even the issues that led to the strike -- automation, the paper's attempt to buy out the union printers, its offer of lifetime job guarantees to others -- had a familiar ring and you didn't have to be a reporter to figure out that the episode bore certain resemblances to the last Washington Post Strike.
What brings this to mind is the $26.5 million damage award Kimerli Jayne Pring won last Friday from Penthouse magazine. While at first glance there does not seem to be much connection between Penthouse, The Washington Post and Lou Grant, a U.S. District jury in Cheyenne, Wyo., has given them a lot in common. Quite conceivably, should that jury's thinking become widespread, you might be seeing that episode on Lou Grant, or you might see it in a watered-down version in which no one is depicted unfavorably. No bad guy labor negotiator, in other words.
The Lou Grant Show is fiction -- there is, after all, no such person as Lou Grant and no such paper as The Los Angeles Tribune -- but it is quite clear that plots and people are often drawn from real-life incidents. Just like a lot of contemporary fiction. As it is also clear as a result of the Penthouse decision that real-life people are now in positions to win libel suits if they don't like the way someone in fiction resembles them in fiction behaves.
The facts in the Penthouse case are, in the magazine's best tradition, more extreme than you would expect to find in real life. In its August 1979 issue, the magazine carried a piece labeled "humor" about a baton-twirling Miss Wyoming who could levitate men through her sexual antics and did so at a Miss America pageant. The piece was written by a New Jersey writer who attended the finals of the 1978 Miss America contest in which KimerliJayne Pring represented Wyoming, but she was not a finalist and he testified in the libel suit that he never even saw her.
There were, according to Penthouse lawyer Paul Cooper, similarities of dress between the levitating Miss Wyoming and the real Miss Wyoming, and both are baton twirlers. The fictionalMiss Wyoming was not identified by year. Further, says Cooper, certain plot developments, including the levitating, place of the story squarely in the realm of fiction. The star of the story was supposed to be a sterotypical "miss goody two shoes," says Cooper. Hence a baton twirler (the author almost made her a trombone player) and hence a beauty queen and hence Wyoming, where the author went to school.
The defense failed to get the trial moved out of Wyoming, which was ridiculed in the article, and Cooper says that what should have been Pring vs. Penthouse ended up the Moral Majority and Wyoming vs. Obscenity and New York. "That's how you get $25.6 million out of a case where the whole damage was to see a psychiatrist twice," says Cooper. Then, says Cooper, the judge instructed the jury to apply the same standards to fiction that they would to a newspaper article, and if they found a reckless regard for the truth then they should find libel.
In 1979, the Supreme Court let stand a California judgement in favor of a nude encounter therapist who felt he was unfavorably portrayed in a novel. Although the author gave the doctor another name, she had gone to the encounter sessions and had agreed in writing not to write about it. You could at least establish that the author was basing her fictional therapist on the real therapist, which is a standard that wasn't satisfied in the Penthouse case.
Real institutions, characters who resemble real people and real incidents all help make fiction more believable and therefore more entertaining. All of us who enjoy fiction have a stake in having reasonable lines drawn between thinly veiled attacks on a real person's character and legitimate use of facts to enhance a story. But the reasonable lines we've been living with got badly tampered with in Cheyenne. There is mot much more merit to holding fiction to the standards we hold newspapers, than there is holding newspapers to the standards we hold fiction. The most appealing argument that Pring made was the Penthouse should have checked to see if there had ever been a baton-twirling Miss Wyoming. Surely, in hindsight, Penthouse must agree with her. But not even in Wyoming could they believe people can really levitate each other by sexual rituals.
Somewhere along the appeals route, someone will realize that the morality play that was staged in Wyoming is more of a nuisance suit, the kind of thing that publishers in real life used to get rid of with a $2,500 check, in return for a release. Unless that happens, those of us who devoured "Scruples" and "The Godfather" and who enjoy Lou Grant could wind up reading "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and watching Buck Rogers