A federal court jury in Alexandria awarded $3,002,000 to NBC Television last night in its suit against independent presidential candidate Lyndon H. LaRouche after rejecting a $150 million libel suit LaRouche filed against the network.
The court confrontation between the candidate and the network was touched off by two NBC broadcasts that profiled LaRouche as the leader of a right-wing extremist "political cult."
The case was one of several major recent suits against television networks that have focused on the newsgathering process. In each, plaintiffs have accused the network involved of being unfair and subjective in its choice of interviews and comments chosen for inclusion in the broadcast reports.
The three-man, three-woman U.S. District Court jury first deliberated for eight hours before rejecting LaRouche's suit against NBC in which he alleged he had been defamed. The award was $3 million in punitive (punishing) damages, and $2,000 in actual damages.
The jury found that there was no evidence that the broadcasts, which charged that LaRouche and his followers engaged in smear campaigns and threatened to kill President Jimmy Carter, were false.
The jurors took almost another five hours to return the verdict for NBC and against LaRouche shortly before 11 p.m.
NBC's successful countersuit stemmed from allegations that LaRouche followers tried to sabotage a scheduled NBC interview with Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) by impersonating NBC reporters and a Senate aide.
A person identifying himself as an NBC employe called Moynihan's office to cancel the NBC interview, according to testimony given during the eight-day trial. Meanwhile, a phone call canceling the interview was made to NBC officials by a person who identified himself as a Moynihan aide, according to testimony.
NBC producer Pat Lynch, a key defendant in LaRouche's suit, testified that she learned soon after the calls were placed that they were bogus and maintained that they had been made by members of LaRouche's organization.
The Moynihan interview was later conducted and included in the NBC broadcasts that were the subjects of LaRouche's libel suit. NBC had sought $10 million from LaRouche accusing him of intentionally interfering with the network's business.
In court earlier this week, LaRouche maintained that he was not involved in the bogus phone calls, but NBC attorneys referred to a deposition LaRouche made earlier this year in which he reportedly said he "might" have known about the calls. LaRouche had countered that the deposition had been falsified.
NBC reporter Brian Ross, another key defendant in the LaRouche suit, late last night called the jury's decision "a confirmation that we did the right thing. The important thing is to get the story out and tell the truth."
A codefendant in LaRouche's suit was the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. Statements made in the broadcasts, aired on the NBC Nightly News and First Camera programs, asserted that LaRouche is anti-Semitic.
In a written statement released after the jury rejected LaRouche's suit, ADL National Director Nathan Perlmutter called the verdict "a common-sense affirmation that bigotry has to be called by its right name."
Michael Dennis, one of three attorneys who represented LaRouche in the trial, said a decision to file an appeal would be made after consulting with their client, who lives on a heavily guarded Leesburg, Va., estate. The 62-year-old three-time presidential candidate appeared in court for three days of testimony during the trial. Dennis said yesterday he did not know LaRouche's whereabouts.
LaRouche's testimony left it unclear whether he could pay a $3 million judgment against him. On Tuesday he testified that he has had no income and paid no income tax for the past 12 years and does not know who has paid for his food, clothing, travel expenses, lawyers' fees and rent over that period.
LaRouche is known widely as the leader of the National Democratic Policy Committee (which is not affiliated with the national Democratic Party). He will be listed as an independent presidential candidate on the ballot in 18 states, including Virginia, and the District of Columbia on Nov. 6.
Among the recent suits involving television networks is a $120 million libel action filed by Gen. William C. Westmoreland against CBS Inc. over a 1982 documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." The case is now in its third week of testimony in a federal court in New York.
In a similar case tried in California in June 1983, a jury found newsman Dan Rather and CBS had not slandered a California physician who sued the network for $4.5 million over a 1979 segment on "60 Minutes."
In late September, the ABC television network settled out-of-court for about $235,000 with Howard Safir, an official of the U.S. Marshals Service, who had sought $10 million in damages over a 1980 report on ABC's "20/20" called "Hostages of Fear."