Media lawyers yesterday hailed as unprecedented a federal jury's decision to reject independent presidential candidate Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr.'s $150 million libel suit against NBC television and to order him to pay the network $3 million in damages.
"It's a breath of fresh air in libel litigation," said media attorney Floyd Abrams of New York, who described LaRouche's suit as an "utterly frivolous case in which the party suing was the one that misbehaved."
"I'm very impressed," said Henry R. Kaufman, general counsel for the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York.
"There's been an unhappily low rate of success for the media" in libel cases that actually go to trial, he said.
LaRouche angrily disagreed. "It's a rotten verdict," he said yesterday. "The judge was corrupt and the jury was massively contaminated."
"This is round one," he said. "The thing is going to go to appeal . . . . The appeal was already ready when we began."
The jury, sitting in Alexandria, late Thursday night ordered the controversial LaRouche, known as the leader of the right-wing National Democratic Policy Committee, to pay NBC $3,002,000 for intentionally interfering with the network's business. The jury also rejected LaRouche's claim that the network maliciously defamed him in two broadcasts that depicted him as an anti-Semite and a "political cult" leader who may have conspired to assassinate President Jimmy Carter.
Larry Grossman, president of NBC News, hailed the verdict yesterday.
It "supports the right and obligation of journalists to gather news and report the facts to the American public," he said. "The jury found that NBC News was doing its job, doing it right, and that what NBC reported was truthful."
According to the center's studies, media organizations have lost 90 percent of the 120 libel cases that have gone to jury trial in the past four years.
The jury verdicts against the media dropped to 60 percent in the past two years, but Kaufman said "that's still a very poor success record."
Although he said NBC "turned the tables" on LaRouche, a Leesburg economist, Kaufman said he was troubled that the case went it to trial at all, and that the jury has awarded what he called a "mega-verdict."
"It is a little ironic that the media, which have been so concerned about excessive libel awards, have turned it around and got a mega-verdict," he said. Studies by his organization show that the average libel award between 1980 to 1984 has been in excess of $2 million, with an average of $1.5 million being awarded in punitive damages.
NBC attorney Thomas J. Kavaler said the spread between the $3 million in punitive and the $2,000 in actual damages awarded by jurors in the LaRouche case was evidence that they intended to "send a message from the juror's box" that would "deter LaRouche."
"We forced Mr. LaRouche into the sunshine," says Kavaler, "and the jurors were able to see him as he really is."
Throughout the nine-day trial, the jury saw portions of the NBC broadcasts, which they later declared nondefamatory, that focused largely on attempts by LaRouche and his followers to intimidate reporters through smear campaigns and the threat of lawsuits.
The NBC award grew out of an NBC's countersuit claiming that LaRouche followers played "dirty tricks" on the network by trying to sabotage a network interview that was part of the controversial broadcasts on LaRouche.
A person identifying himself as an NBC employe called New York Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan's office to cancel an interview that was part of the network's story on LaRouche, according to court testimony. NBC maintained that the call was placed by an impersonator who was a LaRouche ally.
LaRouche has threatened or filed a number of lawsuits against his critics in recent years. LaRouche sued Our Town, a New York weekly, for more than $100 million. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, named with NBC as a defendant in the LaRouche suit, also was cleared by the Alexandria jury of any wrongdoing. The ADL has been accused by LaRouche of making defamatory statements in the broadcasts labeling him a "small-time Hitler."
"This is the fourth libel lawsuit that's been brought against the ADL by the LaRouche bunch and all of them have been absolutely without merit," said Irwin Suall , director of the ADL's fact-finding division, yesterday. Two of the suits were dismissed, another is still pending, he said.
In a similar case, a former U.S. News and World Report writer won an injunction in Washington against LaRouche followers, identified as members of the U.S. Labor Party founded by LaRouche, who were charged with impersonating reporter Sara J. Fritz in phone calls and actual interviews.
During the trial LaRouche, 62, testified that "there is no such thing as a LaRouche organization." He is, however, commonly acknowledged as the leader of the right-wing NDPC and editor of Executive Intelligence Review -- a magazine that costs its subscribers $400 a year. In addition, he is associated with several other organizations and publications, including the Fusion Energy Foundation, the National Anti-Drug Coalition and New Solidarity newspaper.
"I have not made a purchase of anything greater than a $5 haircut in the last 10 years," Larouche said. He testified that he has had no income since 1972 and has no idea who has paid for his clothing, food, rent, security guards, travel expenses or lawyers fees in this period.
"He lives awfully well for a guy with no income," Kavaler said yesterday as he speculated how NBC might collect its $3 million award. "Maybe we could confiscate some of those cars, German shepherds, barbed wire and walkie-talkies and have an auction," he said, referring to LaRouche's practice of traveling with armed guards and living at a guarded estate in Northern Virginia because of his fears of assassination plots.
LaRouche will be on the presidential ballot Tuesday in 18 states, including Virginia and the District of Columbia. He testified that his campaign will air three half-hour-political programs -- at a cost of about $250,000 each -- on prime-time television Monday.