Perhaps the most telling criticism of The Washington Post's handling of the story of "Jimmy," the non-existent 8-year-old drug, addict, is that even if the story had been true, the paper should have gone to the authorities with the information.
If the reporter had wanted an exclusive on the dreadful story, which, after all, involved the commission of a felony and a serious threat to the life of a child, she could simply have asked the police to let her be there when their bust.
The suggestion may seem to strike the perfect balance between competitive journalism and civic responsibility. But the publishers of the Alton (Ill.) Telegraph can be forgiven if they think otherwise.
The small southwest Illinois newspaper is under a $9.2 million libel judgment for a story it didn't print.
The story began a dozen years ago with two Telegraph reporters looking into allegations that organized-crime money was flowing into Madison County, where the paper has most of its 38,000 circulation. A member of a federal strike force looking into the same allegations asked the reporters to share with him any information they uncovered.
The two reporters subsequently gave the federal agent a "confidential memorandum" naming several persons allegedly involved in the funneling of Mafia money into a local savings and loan association. The memo, which they later said was based on tips from the sheriff's department rather than on their own investigative work, also named a local contractor, James C. Green, as being association with "hoods" and dealing heavily with the savings and loan. The reporters asked the federal agents to verify the tips.
The reporters themselves were unable to find any evidence of criminal activity on the part of the savings and loan, and their paper never ran the story.
Meanwhile, however, the federal investigators gave details of the memo to government bank regulators who then cut off all loans to Green, which he said forced him out of business.
He sued the newspaper for libel, and last year a jury awarded him $6.7 million in compensatory damages and $2.5 in punitive damages.
A newspaper official acknowledged that the allegations in the memo turned out to be false, but he still was shocked that the libel judgment went against him, even though he had not printed the allegations.
It is shocking. If it was the false allegations that drove Green out of business, it seems fair to say that the blame rests with the federal authorities who acted on them, not with the reporters who asked only that they be checked out. The judgment, currently being appealed, also raises questions as to the proper role of a citizen who comes upon information relating to criminal activity that he is unable to confirm. If the very act of sharing the information with law enforcement authorities can lead to a libel judgment, wouldn't it be smart just to keep quiet?
But if the fact of the award is shocking, the size of the judgment is nothing short of astounding. Even Green seems to acknowledge that the award is high. He has offered to settle for $950.000 -- the amount of the paper's libel insurance coverage -- plus $75.000 a year for 15 years.
Stephen A. Cousley, editor of the Telegraph, says, he turned down the proposal because it would leave him with no protection against libel suits filed by others mentioned in the memo.
What the family-run newspaper has done instead is to file preliminary bankruptcy proceedings, which means that Green will be unable to collect, pending appeal of the case.
Meanwhile, it's hard to know what lessons to draw from the incident. One newspaper is castigated for not going to the authorities with information in its possession. Another goes to the authorities and is socked with a potentially bankrupting libel judgment.
It doesn't make sense.