FOR ANYBODY ELSE, it might seem like a lot of money -- about $1 million in legal fees in return for a jury verdict last week finding that three of 55 paragraphs about him in The Boston Globe contained "defamatory falsehood(s)."
But for John R. Lakian, a self-made millionaire who accused The Globe of spiking his political career with a 1982 story about his "pattern of discrepancies" in describing his record, it was worth it.
"I won," said Lakian, even though the Massachusetts jury last week said the "gist" of The Globe's story was true and awarded him not even a token $1 for his years of anguish and his grueling month-long trial.
Said his lawyer, Norman Roy Grutman: "The jury gave him something more precious than money. They gave him his reputation back."
Indeed, Lakian is one of a number of public figures in the last year who may not have technically won their libel cases against major publications, but have nevertheless achieved what they now say that they really wanted in the first place -- a costly but well- publicized day in court.
By using the courtroom as the forum for their grievances, they have forced the media to release mounds of private documents, some of it illuminating, much of it embarrassing. The journalists who were defendants may not have lost in court, but in recent cases they have lost standing with the public and with some of their professional colleagues.
With these trials, the plaintiffs have also gained access to what may be an even more important forum -- the courthouse steps, where a cluster of television cameras records their statements outside about what is going on inside.
Time magazine's courtroom encounter with former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon is a classic case in point. Time won the lawsuit; Sharon won the public relations battle.
"He came away from this case feeling that he has achieved precisely what he wanted," said Arnold Forster, one member of Sharon's legal team in the case.
"The substantive issue was won by (Sharon) and not Time magazine. Many of the editorials all over this country agreed. Many editorials spanked Time magazine. They spanked them for not getting their facts straight; they spanked them for their arrogance," he said.
But as almost any libel lawyer in this country would protest, Time won the case. Sharon got not a dime. As a public figure in this country's legal system, Sharon had to prove not only that Time published a paragraph that was false, but also that Time knew it was false or didn't much care whether it was true. That latter proof, known in the legal trade as "proof of malice," is a difficult one for public figures, and it was a hurdle that Sharon could not manage.
But Sharon declared victory because the jury said that one paragraph in a long story about the massacre in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps was false. The jury also chastised Time for acting "negligently and carelessly in reporting and verifying the information" in the paragraph.
The Westmoreland case never got that far. Retired Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who settled his $120 million lawsuit against CBS virtually on the eve of a jury decision, was expected to lose the case on the question of whether CBS believed its 90-minute documentary about Westmoreland in Vietnam was false.
With some of his own men testifying against him on the stand, Westmoreland decided to pull out before facing the awful possibility for him that a jury might also decide that the CBS program -- which accused him of hiding enemy numbers from President Johnson -- was true.
So the 70-year-old former commander of American forces in Vietnam withdrew and declared victory. It was a public relations gamble, which many believe he won.
CBS, ever cautious about attacking Westmoreland, also declared victory and celebrated privately about what they saw as a legal win. But, as one of Westmoreland's lawyers said later: "I was surprised that (Westmoreland) came out as well as he did. The press was generous to his side."
And as Westmoreland himself said recently: "I was glad we did it. We got what we wanted," meaning a public airing of his side of the story.
What is increasingly clear in these cases, is that the tactic is to sue, pay the legal fees, face the agony in the courtroom and then declare victory to the press on the courthouse steps, no matter what.
For many plaintiffs, the legal battle may be secondary or even irrelevant. It is vindication that they seek -- a revenge that comes not only by costing the publication money but by reaping hours of television time or newspaper space for their cause.
A recent survey of American libel cases over the decade ending last year found that most libel plaintiffs do not prevail in their uphill struggle against the First Amendment protection of freedom of the press. Known as the Iowa Libel Research Project, the survey of about 800 cases found that most libel plaintiffs do not sue to win, but feel they win by suing.
What do these lawsuits cost the press? The answers from members of the media are thunderous. There is the time, the money. But most feared by veteran journalists is the "chilling effect," which in some cases means that reporters become not merely more cautious and careful but afraid to write anything but the most innocuous stories.
The cost of attorney's fees and libel insurance for the media can virtually bankrupt smaller publications.
If it is an aggrieved private citizen trying to defend his or her name, that is one thing. But, as Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts says, it's an entirely different matter for public officials.
Public figures have access to power of many varieties. If they are still in government, their comments are often privileged, shielding them from libel or slander suits. Those who are merely famous have access to other powerful avenues -- including friends in the media -- or that traditionally almost-automatic route to the evening news, the well-organized press conference.
But that one-shot defense does not compare to daily access to the media that can accompany a libel trial.
"Each time a big-name public figure sues a major publication and generates widespread publicity, it almost inevitably lures other public officials to try libel and slander suits against their critics -- often small newspapers or private citizens or public interest groups that can ill afford to defend themselves," Roberts said recently at a House subcommittee hearing.
Roberts told the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts, civil liberties and administration of justice that suits by public officials "do not promote diversity, criticism or dissent.
"To the contrary, they put a heavy price on it. They enforce the power of those who govern. They reduce the power of those who are governed," he said. "We have turned a precious right -- freedom of speech -- over to lawyers who, with their qualifying, quibbling and quarreling, are pricing it out of existence."
The argument seems a durable one for those small-or medium-sized publications that can least afford the mountainous legal bills that come with fighting such a case -- often losing it at the jury level and winning it on appeal.
But there are some who see this as a natural turn by the legal profession to fresh corporate territory: After the chemical companies and the automobile companies, we now have the media companies.
"All I ever do is once in a while I sue the hell out of one of those giant corporations that own a lot of your papers," Gerry Spence told the American Society of Newspaper Editors last year. "I never sued one of you fellows."
Spence, often called "The $100 Million Country Lawyer" who won cases for the estate of Karen Silkwood and beat Penthouse in libel suit by the former Miss Wyoming, said that the public is often afraid of those who are powerful in this society. And he said they fear the power of the press.
"What do we do with things we are afraid of? What do you do with a snake? You step on its head," Spence said.
Spence portrays the competition as one between a bloodless corporation and a wounded orphan.
But, in libel law, especially as it involves public figures, the question is not merely whether a person was hurt by a story, but whether that story was false and the publication knew it was false.
It is a complicated business, with various counts and confusing verdicts. The result is that when the jury finishes, legal combatants can use the muddle to their advantage, finding nuggets for their side, even if they lost the case.
The Lakian verdict is a classic in this regard. The jury's verdict last week, which resulted in widespread confusion about who won and claims of victory by both sides, is expected to be clarified Monday in Dedham, Mass.
Globe editor Michael Janeway called the verdict "inconsistent" but said that it was not libel. Nevertheless, the secondary headline in The Globe the next day said that "three paragraphs of Globe article called libelous."
Lakian's team was less ambivalent and it was reported in Boston that The Globe had libeled him in its 1982 story. As his attorney, Grutman, put it, "John Lakian was deodorized, sanitized and restored to the human race" by the verdict.
Such talk broke the jurors' post-trial silence. Four of them told The Globe that they intended the verdict to be for the newspaper, and had made that clear when they refused to award Lakian any money -- believing that damages were one of the four necessary elements in libel.
"We thought of giving him a quarter so he could buy a Globe," one juror, Herbert Lawson, was quoted in The Globe as saying. But he added that the suggestion was rejected "because of the dignity of the court."
Whatever the judge rules, it will be the subject of a vigorous public relations debate that begins minutes after his decision.
The real battle in the Lakian case was always on the front steps of the Norfolk (County) Superior Court.
Grutman, in his awning-wide-striped shirts and his red bandanna spilling form his pocket, often used his daily forum to make derogatory comments about Globe reporter Walter V. Robinson.
When Grutman finished, the cluster of reporters would turn to Francis H. Fox, the Globe's lawyer, who would then give his version of the day's courtroom events, often attacking Lakian.
Circling these two clusters would be Leo Murray, Lakian's public relations agent, and John Scanlon, who was viewed as being so successful with the press on behalf of CBS in the Westmoreland case that The Globe hired him for this one.
Murray, who works for former ABC executive Jim Abernathy's consulting firm in New York -- which was retained by Lakian -- sent out Federal Express packets to influential journalists each crucial day in the trial, giving Lakian's version of the events.
Often Murray would attach articles to his release to support his contentions. For testimony on July 10, viewed as the most important day for Lakian when reporter Robinson acknowledged errors, Murray attached the next day's story in The Boston Globe.
If the public relations aspects of libel are the wave of the future, in one sense they make journalists nervous -- in the immediate instance those on The Globe who spend their time trying to get beyond the public relations handout to what they see as a fuller truth.
In his closing arguments to the jury, Fox, the Globe's attorney, defended Robinson's story, which analyzed Lakian's public relations releases for his 1982 campaign for Republican nomination for governor.
"Here is a candidate for one of the highest offices in this commonwealth . . . a relative unknown . . . with a public relations team cranking out public relations.
"Sell, sell, sell," he said, adding that it is up the press to tell voters who is behind these advertisements for the candidate.
"For the last 200 years in this republic, it has been the Walter Robinsons who have performed this service," he said, calling for "vigorous and robust debate."
"When there is not such scrutiny, we are in jeopardy. We are at the mercy of the public relations teams," Fox said with obvious passion.
Indeed, in this case, both parties were at the mercy of their public relations teams, as the rules of the game were defined more before the cameras than before the judge.