In the Alton Telegraph libel case, the newspaper of a small Illinois community “was found liable for defamation and a judgement of nearly ten million dollars on the basis of something that was never even published in its pages.” The offending “libel” took the form of a 1969 secret memorandum to an FBI agent written by two reporters. The memorandum marked “confidential,” reported a “possible link” between the mafia and a local savings and loan bank. In the course of describing the possible link, the memo characterized several local figures in unflattering ways. The Federal government initiated an investigation on the basis of the memorandum and although it never found any Mafia links, it did discover other problems that resulted in financial difficulties. The reason why the confidential memo had been written and sent became the “smoking gun” of the libel suit, proving – in the view of the plaintiff’s lawyer – that it was sent in bad faith and was therefore not privileged. The paper, published independently for nearly a century and a half, was unable to post the $10 million appeal bond required by Illinois law. Facing bankruptcy it was sold to a national newspaper group.
Professor Littlewood’s look at this “most peculiar case” tells what happened to derail these expectations. Coals of Fire is grounded in American history and an understanding of the intersection of journalism and law. We believe you will find it instructive and provocative.