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The New York Times considers the Jayson Blair episode to be “a low point” in its history. But things could go even lower, say prominent media lawyers. They agree that if the subjects of Blair’s stories sue the paper for injury to reputation or feeling, the Times would have a tough time mounting a defense. Blair left the paper in May, after it was revealed that many of his stories were plagiarized or fabricated. The 27-year-old reporter has admitted to the deceptions, though in an interview with The New York Observer he blamed his actions on his drug use, along with racism at the Times. The paper’s legal department did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Because Blair’s articles involved subjects all over the country, potential suits would vary depending on the jurisdiction, says First Amendment specialist Victor Kovner. New York law, for example, recognizes a tort for libel but not one for portraying someone in a false light, as most states do. Kovner, a senior partner in the New York office of Davis Wright Tremaine, explains that false light addresses injury to feeling, or emotional distress, while libel concerns injury to reputation. Blair’s invention of quotes and interviews that did not take place would be “classic false light,” he says. Among those who might be able to make such a claim are law enforcement officials involved in the hunt for the snipers who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area last fall. Blair reported in one story that, according to unnamed sources, Thomas DiBiagio, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, interrupted the interrogation of John Muhammad just as the sniper suspect was on the verge of confessing. However, in a detailed examination of Blair’s actions published after his resignation, the Times quoted officials who monitored the interrogation and who said that Muhammad was not actually on the verge of confessing. Blair’s fraud would also satisfy the higher standard for libel suits by public figures, Kovner says. Plaintiffs must prove that a paper engaged in “actual malice” by demonstrating a reckless disregard for the truth. In this case, the Times would be unable to prove otherwise, given that Blair simply made things up. The Times would also find its defense weakened by evidence that it ignored warning signs about Blair’s problems. “Certainly in this case, they had advance knowledge,” says Martin Garbus, a partner at Davis & Gilbert in New York. “They could conceivably have stopped this.” Both Kovner and Garbus caution that the vast majority of Blair’s plagiarism and fabrications would likely prove nondefamatory. Moreover, the Times‘s ongoing reexamination of Blair’s stories � and the resulting corrections or retractions � will likely mollify many potential litigants. As Kovner notes, “Frequently, all people want is an apology and a retraction.”

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