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An equation dangerous to the practice of democracy. Investigative journalism = ``muckraking'' = libel (``actual malice'').

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THIS is an equation suggested by a recent appellate court ruling in a newspaper libel case. And it is sending chills down media spines and alarming other defenders of the First Amendment. It should also raise the concerns of the reading, listening, and viewing public, as well, who rely on responsible media representatives to keep them informed about the doings and misdoings in both government and the private sector.

What two of three Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals judges said, in effect, is that newspapers who relentlessly dig out wrongdoing tend to earn themselves reputations as muckrakers. And, consequently, they may be particularly vulnerable to libel judgments.

The appellate tribunal used this rationale to reinstate a lower-court jury verdict against the Washington Post for libeling William P. Tavoulareas when he was president of the Mobil Corporation. The trial judge had overridden the jury after examining the record and concluding that there was no proof of malice in terms of reckless disregard for the truth.

However, District of Columbia Appellate Court Judge George E. MacKinnon saw it differently. He said that the newspaper and its reporter had set out to ``get'' the Mobil official and had deliberately ``slanted, rejected, and ignored evidence contrary to the false premise of the story.''

But Judge MacKinnon went even further (and this is what alarms the press) by suggesting that a publication's unswerving dedication to unearthing improprieties -- what he termed ``muckraking'' -- ``certainly is relevant to whether a newspaper's employees acted in reckless disregard of whether a statement is false or not.''

In other words, what the court was saying is that too much crusading could be a dangerous thing -- for the press. It might inevitably lead to abuse and result in libel sanctions.

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