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CBS libel case to go to jury on actual malice

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  1. Libel and Privacy
CBS could have acted with actual malice when it broadcast a story about a government employee who was investigated for…

CBS could have acted with actual malice when it broadcast a story about a government employee who was investigated for allegations she had used federal dollars to buy a Ford Mustang, a federal court in New Mexico has ruled.

The network had reported several times on the government’s investigations into Lillian Anaya, a procurement assistant at Los Alamos National Laboratory until she was suspended in 2002. Anaya had been the target of internal and FBI inquiries for her alleged use of a company credit card to purchase a $30,000 customized Mustang.

Anaya sued the network in 2006 for libel over its coverage of her case. The U.S. District Court ruled that Anaya, though not a public figure initially, became a limited purpose public figure in 2003 after she thrust herself into the media. The court then went on to find possible evidence of actual malice in regard to some statements made during the last two CBS broadcasts that would have to go to a jury. The court found no evidence of actual malice in many of the earlier broadcasts.

The ruling initially came down in December and after the plaintiffs asked the judge to change some of the wording the court handed down the latest ruling at the end of May.

According to court papers, CBS reported that Anaya bought the Mustang with taxpayer dollars. But according to the report issued by the internal investigation, Anaya had placed phone calls and a fax to what used to be a regular vendor of the laboratory. At the time the calls and faxes were made, Anaya was not aware that the vendor’s numbers had changed and that the numbers now connected her to a Mustang dealership. Thinking she was faxing an order for equipment to the old vendor, Anaya sent the company credit card number and specified the equipment she needed. According to the report, the Mustang dealership took that credit card number and charged $30,000 for a new car.

In the 107-page opinion, the court first determined that Anaya was not a public figure during the initial broadcasts because she did not have “substantial responsibility over government affairs.” Anaya did, however, become a limited purpose public figure once she was investigated, the court reasoned, because she sought out the press in an attempt to exonerate herself.

The court then examined the reporting of Sharyl Attkisson, who covered the investigation on various CBS programs. It ruled that there was a sufficient question for a jury of whether she acted with actual malice — defined as reckless disregard for the truth — when she reported that Anaya had purchased the car.

“The Court believes that there is sufficient evidence for a jury to find that, by showing footage of a customized Mustang convertible and telling the viewer that Lillian Anaya bought it with taxpayer money, CBS acted with malice,” the Court ruled.

When the last two broadcasts were aired, the court said, Attkisson had “a mountain of evidence that there was no car and that the evidence against Lillian Anaya supported, at most, an allegation she attempted to charge a car, and the attempt was stopped.”

The court went on to say that a jury could find that Attkisson “intentionally took the report out of context.”

The court did, however, grant summary judgment in favor of CBS in regard to a handful of other broadcasts in which it was determined Attkisson did not act with actual malice.