Absence of Malice Critique

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Defamation is an act of damaging the good reputation of a person. And it was the key component of Sydney Pollack’s movie released in 1981, Absence of Malice.

The American film starred Paul Newman and Sally Field as Michael ­“Mike” Gallagher and Megan “Meg” Carter respectively. Mike was a wholesaler of liquor in Miami, who was also the son of a deceased criminal. He found himself one day, a front-page story written by Meg in a local newspaper, Miami Standard. The story exhibited Mike being investigated in the disappearance and presumed murder of a local official, Joey Diaz.

After seeing the article about him, Mike went to the newspaper’s office to know about the basis of the story, but Meg did not reveal her source—a file of prosecutor Elliot Rosen intentionally left on his desk when Meg visited him in his office. Union officials became suspicious of Mike having him implicated in Diaz’s murder, and they shut down Mike’s business.

Meg talked to Teresa Peron, Mike’s lifelong friend, who told her that Mike could not have killed Joey for when the murder happened, Mike took her out of town for an abortion. She did not want that idea to be publicized, but Meg printed the story anyway. Teresa woke up to find out her story in the newspaper. She felt very ashamed that she even stole her neighbors’ newspaper, and committed suicide.

When Meg knew about Teresa killing herself, she immediately went to Mike and apologized. However, he assaulted her. She still tried to make it up to him by revealing Elliot’s role in the investigation.

Mike planned for revenge. He arranged secret meetings with the District Attorney Quinn for the investigation to be called off and for his name to be cleared. He made anonymous contributions to one of Quinn’s political action committee backers before and after Quinn issued a public statement absolving Mike.

Elliot became suspicious of Quinn’s exoneration, so he decided to investigate Quinn and Mike. He put phone taps on both and began surveillance of their actions. His agent, Bob Waddell, acquired evidence of Mike’s donations to one of Quinn’s political action committee and his love affair with Meg.

Bob warned Meg about his knowledge to keep her out of trouble, but again, she disclosed the story about the Office of District Attorney was investigating Mike’s attempt of bribery. The news was printed again on the front page, which made the US Assistant Attorney General James Wells call all of the principals together. He then discovered that Elliot illegally exposed to the press the information about the examination of Mike’s activities. He also knew about the set up between Mike and Quinn, but cannot prove it, so he no longer continued the investigation.

In the end, Miami Standard printed a story revealing the whole truth of the incidents.

It is a common knowledge that media, may it be print or broadcast, has the biggest impact on people. Whatever the media says is often believed by the majority, which is most likely certain dynamics of news media, should be observed in every news story.

As portrayed in the movie, the article Meg wrote about Mike was lacking accuracy for factual reporting. The source she had did not seem to be quite reliable. Journalists are expected to be as accurate as possible with the news they report.

Furthermore, the Limitation of Harm Principle was not applied in the news Meg printed. It is very important for writers to withhold certain information, especially those that could harm one’s reputation. This dynamic did not also seem to be administered by Meg.  She wrote a front-page story that inevitably damaged Mike’s name.

“Reporting the truth is almost never libel.” But with the key element of the movie, the truth was not served early. Private persons are said to have more private rights than those of the public ones that must be well balanced. Mike, being more of a private individual, had his private rights kind of violated.

Nevertheless, truth prevailed in the end. Mike cleared his name, but of course, it will not guarantee a whole new character people see in him. That is why accuracy, Limitation of Harm and honesty are very important in news. One’s story must be factual enough for the public to read and believe in, so he or she could not defame a person’s good reputation.