Commentary: Maybe 'Sorry' isn't the hardest word

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Maybe Elton John was wrong: "Sorry" doesn't seem to be the hardest word.

Lately, it seems that public figures have been demanding -- and getting -- more apologies than ever from media outlets. Last week, David Duchovny joined Nicole Kidman and Will Smith among the actors who have recently trumpeted mea culpas, this one from Britain's Daily Mail, which published an item on its Web site suggesting that the "Californication" star cheated on wife Tea Leoni with a tennis coach.

Despite the difficulty of winning defamation cases, the business of extracting retractions has become lucrative for entertainment litigators as the media universe has diversified and entertainment figures find their reputations increasingly under attack.

"In most defamation cases, it's not an economic proposition," says Larry Stein, Duchovny's lawyer. "It's difficult to show that the damages are directly attributable to the defamatory material. And when you get awards, it's not a significant amount. So a very important aspect of bringing the lawsuit is to show that what was said about you is false. And if you can, to obtain an apology."

Stein got the Duchovny apology -- as well as recent retractions from the National Enquirer for saying that Ashley Olsen was caught in a drug bust and from celebrity Web site X17 for claiming that NBA player Tony Parker cheated on wife Eva Longoria Parker -- after suing in Los Angeles courts. But the real action in defamation cases can be found in the U.K., a venue the Times of London has called the "libel capital of the world" because it lacks the equivalent of America's First Amendment.

That means that while burden of proof in a U.S. case often is on the aggrieved to show that a story is false and the publication knew it was false, in Britain the tables are turned -- media companies generally must prove that the offending statement is true. And the aggrieved need not live in the U.K. to avail themselves of the law; all that matters is that the statement is published there.

The result is that libel specialists like London's Schillings law firm increasingly have become hired guns for Hollywood talent lawyers looking to avenge their disparaged clients in a friendly forum.

Just this year, Schillings got Smith an apology from the World Entertainment News Network after it claimed he said in an interview that Adolf Hitler was a "good person." The Daily Star apologized for writing that Ozzy Osbourne passed out at the annual Brit Awards and had to be carted around in an electric buggy. The publisher of News of the World apologized to Rosanna Arquette for claiming that the actress "has battled drug problems." Kidman even won "sincere apologies" from the Daily Telegraph for saying she was wearing a perfume called White Jasmine & Mint instead of Chanel No. 5, which Kidman was paid millions to endorse.

Using defamation cases to force apologies is nothing new, of course. The Enquirer once said it was sorry to actor Michael Landon for saying he had exposed himself to a facialist and to Melissa Gilbert for suggesting she was a bad mother.

But after years of not quite knowing how to handle the Internet, libel lawyers are becoming increasingly hip to today's online media free-for-all. Defamation now lives forever in search engines, and a damaging statement in even the tiniest publication can bounce around the world on the blogs and newsfeeds that have replaced tabloids as the papers of record for the lowest common denominator. Smith's original Hitler comment, published in the Scottish newspaper the Daily Record, was corrected by the paper the following day. But by then it had metastasized throughout the celebrity blogosphere, becoming one of those irresistible Drudge Report items we've all clicked on. Few Web sites later picked up the small fact that it wasn't true.

With that kind of power, it makes sense that defamation lawyers are now asking the online media kids to apologize for their mistakes like grown-ups. Schillings recently scolded the popular gossip blog Popbitch, which paid damages and said it was sorry after it published an item claiming that British actor Max Beesley had tried to get three women to have sex with him at a TV industry party in Cannes.

The downside of this rush to correct is that it merely calls attention to the original false statement. But Stein believes that in Hollywood, the alternative is more daunting.

"In this business, your reputation is the most important part of your livelihood," he says.
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