Newsday: “Sharon Loses Libel Suit; Time Cleared of Malice”

January 25, 1985

January 25, 1985
p 3, 27
“Sharon Loses Libel Suit; Time Cleared of Malice”

Newsday UN Bureau


Ariel Sharon yesterday lost his 2-year legal battle to prove that Time magazine libeled him when a federal jury found “no malice” in a false and defamatory paragraph the magazine published about the former Israeli defense minister.

In announcing its decisive third verdict, the panel took the highly unusual step of chastising Time employees in a statement U.S. District Judge Abraham Sofaer allowed the foreman to read in court for acting “negligently and carelessly.”

Time said it won the suit and still believes its story is true.

Sharon said, “I managed to prove that Time magazine lied.” His lawyers said they do not plan to appeal.

The disputed paragraph was contained in a lengthy cover story Time published Feb. 21, 1983, about the Israeli commission of inquiry into the 1982 Beirut massacre.

Time said that Sharon reportedly discussed revenge with the Gemayel family after the assassination of Lebanese president-elect Bashir Gemayel, the Phalange leader. Sharon allowed Phalange militiamen into two Palestinian refugee camps two days later. They massacred hundreds of civilians.

In its earlier verdicts, the jury in Manhattan found that the facts in the paragraph were false and that they defamed Sharon by implying that he consciously intended to permit the Phalange to commit revenge.

The jury further found that the defamatory effect of the paragraph was aggravated by Time’s statement that details of Sharon’s alleged conversation were contained in secret Appendix B of the Israeli commission report.

Sharon greeted each of the earlier verdicts with a claim of “moral victory,” just as he had when Time conceded in court that it was wrong about Appendix B.

It was a publicity strategy that won plaudits even from Time’s chief attorney, Thomas Barr, who was overheard complimenting Sharon about it before the jury went out a week ago Monday.

Yesterday Barr sniped that Sharon had gotten more publicity “in the last 10 weeks than in the last 10 years.”

But in the chasm between the cameras and the courtroom, Time prevailed on the third and pivotal legal test of malice.

“ lawsuit is very much like a war,” Barr said. “Who wins the battles is not very important. Who wins the war is terribly important. The war is over, and we won.”

Put simply, the question Sofaer took 20 pages in his jury charge to explain was: Did Time publish the paragraph with good reason to believe it was false?

“No,” was the unanimous verdict.

Jury foreman Richard Peter Zug, 45, an IBM computer programmer, read out the statement, the panel received permission to add to its verdict:

“We find that certain Time employees, particularly correspondent David Halevy, acted negligently and carelessly in reporting and verifying the information which ultimately found its way into the published paragraph of interest in this case.”

Later, juror Lydia Burdick explained in a telephone interview why the panel found it necessary to expand on its finding.

“All we could say is yes or no,” the 35-year-old Manhattan resident said. “We felt we wanted to indicate that yes, we feel that the people at Time felt it was true. But there should have been more careful sourcing of the story, more careful checking, and they should have been more careful to say where informed speculation came in and where something was fact.”

As to Time’s contention that had the Israeli government given them access to key secret documents, witnesses and testimony, the jury would have decided in its favor in 10 minutes. Burdick said. “We had to base our verdict on what we had as testimony and evidence.

Since the trial began Nov. 13, the jury heard Time reporters, writers and editors testify about how the magazine goes bout reporting, checking, writing and editing what gets into print.

Halevy, 43, an Israeli national who has worked for Time for 15 years, testified he relied on high-level confidential sources in obtaining the information for the disputed paragraph.

He also acknowledged under questioning that he had no source for the statement about Appendix B, but that it was his “assessment.” Based on what he had learned from his sources and his long experience as a reporter in Israel.

Sharon’s attorney, Milton Gould, said the verdict “fully vindicated” the current Israeli minister of trade and industry.

“I don’t think that Time can feel proud of what has happened in this courtroom in the past couple of months,” Gould said.

While declaring, “This libel suit is over and Time has won it,” a statement from Time Inc. ridiculed the result of 10 weeks in U.S. District Court as a “half-trial.”

“Time’s defense in this suit was severely hampered by the Israeli government. That government, citing security concern, prevented key witnesses from testifying, threatened to prosecute them if they even talked with the magazine’s attorneys, and denied access to documents and testimony that Time felt would have proven its case.”

The statement made no reference to the magazine’s efforts to amass evidence in Lebanon, which, a Time spokesman said, “produced a great deal of information, but not the kind that can be used in court.”

In its statement, Time said it “feels strongly that the case should never have reached an American courtroom. It was brought by a foreign politician attempting to recoup his political fortunes.

“He could not sue Israel’s Kahan Commission, which had found him guilty of indirect responsibility for the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla and recommended his ouster as defense minister. So he sued Time. This caused a long, expensive and inappropriate legal action.”

Judge Sofaer lauded the jury’s process of deliberation as a demonstration of fairness and impartiality.