The End of Libel?

Even if you Google your name and find an offending article, you’ll also find “8,700 other things from the last 10 days, too,” added Mr. Karle.

Not only is there much more out there, but now subjects- can you say M.I.A.?-can get their story out there. “People who used to feel frustrated that they couldn’t get their viewpoint across now can,” said Mr. Karle, The Journal‘s lawyer for 15 years. “They can put their response on a Web site. They can find an outlet that will publish it. They can get their perspective out immediately.”

And then there’s the willingness of publications to go out and correct something that’s wrong online. No one has to wait a few days or even months for a correction no one sees! “On the Internet, people’s complaints get vindicated a lot more and much faster than in print,” said Mr. Freeman, the Times lawyer. “In print, maybe you’ll get a correction, but in the plaintiff’s view, the damage has already been done. On the other hand, if you complain about a mistake because you see it on the Internet, it’s more likely a rapid change can be made and people don’t feel the necessity to sue because they feel like their complaint has been dealt with.”

The more serious question is whether the financial state of media is another reason suits are dropping. “I think some of it can be explained by the fact that news organizations are cutting back investigative reporting and that’s what often generates libel suits,” said Laura Handman, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, and who has represented the Daily News, The Journal and The Observer.

“Not talking about Time Inc., but news organizations are spending less money on investigative journalism. That kind of journalism is not only expensive before the fact but expensive after the fact, when you’re defending it in a lawsuit,” said Ms. Bierstedt. “The (1991) Time magazine Scientology cover story was an expensive story to do and an expensive story to defend.”

There’s also a sense that given the battered financial state of news organizations, they may be more willing to make changes when there is an angry phone call placed from a lawyer before a story hits. Who wants to spend all that money when the news organizations are barely scraping by?

“In respect to the smaller newspapers and the smaller broadcasters that work on a tight budget and the larger ones that aren’t doing well, the risks of litigation are considered very real and very troubling,” said Mr. Abrams.

Finally, media lawyers also said that after years of high expenses and low odds, plaintiffs may have finally figured out that libel suits don’t really work.

“Once everyone gets into the claim and begins to realize that it is so lengthy and onerous and so unpleasant for all involved, many claims seem to go away,” said Ms. Baron, from the Media Law Resource Center. “Claims are brought in by a certain level of anger. Then people will talk about it and resolutions will be found and corrections will be made or statements will be clarified.”

“It may be that 50 years after the Sullivan decision, plaintiff’s lawyers have come to grips with the fact that libel suits are hard to win, and it might not be worth the time and effort to spend in fighting,” said Mr. Freeman, the Times lawyer.

Additionally, media companies tend to fight the lawsuits on a matter of principle. A quick settlement, particularly with larger companies, is rarely in the cards.

This is not to say that journalists have it easy these days. Subpoenas are still dropping down on reporters. The media is still getting sued. But when it comes to the old-fashioned libel case, lawyers and subjects might finally be calling it a day.

Beginning next week, Ms. Bierstedt will be in Martha’s Vineyard, beginning her retirement.

“I’ve been here 27 years, I’ve had a great, long career, but my practice has definitely changed,” she said. “I laugh when I say I came here for the lawsuits, but in a way I did. Defending journalists is one of the few worthwhile things a lawyer can do, and there’s just less of that work now. It’s just not like the days when we had nasty high-profile plaintiffs coming at us.”

jkoblin@observer.com

With additional reporting by Esther Zuckerman

Update: To clarify, the Times Company has had no active domestic lawsuits in the last year. There are currently five pending libel cases abroad.