The fight between the repugnant Ariel Sharon and the arrogant Time magazine ended in the most wonderful of ways: They both lost. Sharon lost his suit and Time its credibility. This most American of magazines played a bad game of poker. It tried to bluff a man whose down card was the truth.

The statements of Time's editors indicate that they still don't understand where they went wrong. From the very first, what was on trial was not whether the law would shield Time from the wrath of Sharon, but whether the magazine's would be willing to admit that it had made a mistake. From the top of the Time-Life Building to the sub-basement, the answer came back: Time admits nothing.

But in so doing, it admitted plenty -- arrogance. It erroneously reported that Sharon, once Israel's defense minister, was linked to the massacre of Palestinians by the Christian Phalange. Time said it "had learned" that Sharon had "discussed" with Lebanon's Phalangist leaders the need to revenge the death of president-elect Bashir Gemayel. It said, furthermore, that an account of that discussion could be found in a secret appendix to an Israeli report.

The facts were otherwise. Appendix B to the Kahan Report did not mention such a conversation with Phalange leaders. There is no evidence that such a conversation took place. Instead, Time had to acknowledge that an account of the conversation found its way into the magazine because a reporter "inferred" it. In a version of the old child's game of telephone, what he inferred was written and edited by others until the words "he (Sharon) gave them the feeling" became "discussed."

Of course, any news organization can make a mistake, and all sooner or later become victims of their procedures. Time made a mistake, and in and of itself that's no big deal. But when it was confronted with that mistake, when Sharon sued knowing -- as he must have -- what was in the Kahan report, Time just dummied up. It was not until the very end of the trial that Time grudgingly acknowledged that its original report was off the mark. Before that, though, it used the legal concept of "malice" like a brat uses his mother's skirts. C'mon and sue, it said. And Sharon did.

Neither the trial nor its outcome alters the conclusions of the Kahan Commission or the verdict of history. Sharon ought to have known that the murderous Phalange would seek revenge if allowed into the Palestinian camps. This was the judgment of the Kahan Commission and the reason Sharon resigned as defense minister. Even aside from that, you don't have to know very much about Ariel Sharon to construct a scenario in which a massacre would serve his purpose: It would terrorize the Palestinians, make them flee Beirut and maybe Lebanon itself. That, after all, was the reason Israel invaded Lebanon in the first place.

But thinking that, theorizing that, inferring that and then proving that are two different things. Inadvertently, maybe because of a system in which nuance gets firmed into fact, that line was crossed. It happens. The result in this case was the soiling of Time's reputation and, possibly, the revival of Sharon's political career. The former is tragic; the latter is a sin.

But it is also something of a sin to forget that the press was given a substantial measure of libel protection not so it can cover up mistakes, but so it can do its job. Time's job is to report the news -- even if that news is the fact that it once was mistaken. Its obligation is to inform its readers, not construct a wall of lawyers to defend its reputation. It and the press in general would have been better served if it had simply apologized.

For a long time, Time magazine has been a proud part of the American press, and it is certainly entitled to its mistakes. But in this case, its real mistake was not one of fact but in thinking it could use a press freedom to avoid admitting a mistake. In a different context, that was Richard Nixon's mistake too. He had to resign because the cover-up said more about his character than anything he was covering up. It's the same with Time.