Carol Burnett, Henry Kissinger, and a landmark libel suit

Chocolate soufflé and lies!

Would you want to be a public figure? Sure, you'd get the occasional free drink here and there. You'd be recognized for your accomplishments, and people would fawn over you for your fame. You might find that notoriety comes at the expense of your privacy. You might find it all worthwhile, or you might not! 

Here are the facts: In January 1976, Carol Burnett dined at Washington D.C.'s Rive Gauche restaurant. Burnett, who passionately campaigned against alcoholism, enjoyed "two or three" glasses of wine, but was not drunk. She was introduced to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was also dining at the same restaurant. 

Paid informant Couri Hays told the National Enquirer that Burnett boisterously toured the restaurant, offering patrons bites of her soufflé. However, Hays maintained that Burnett was not drunk. He did not relay anything about Kissinger to the tabloid when he was paid for his story.

A reporter from the Enquirer then attempted to verify the story and learned that Burnett conversed with Kissinger that evening.

Despite what they were told and what they were able to confirm, the staff of the Enquirer then published the following false story:

In a Washington restaurant, a boisterous Carol Burnett had a loud argument with another diner, Henry Kissinger. Then she traipsed around the place offering everyone a bite of her dessert. But Carol really raised eyebrows when she accidentally knocked a glass of wine over one diner and started giggling instead of apologizing. The guy wasn't amused and 'accidentally' spilled a glass of water over Carol's dress.

However, since she wasn't drunk, boisterous, or argumentative that evening, Carol Burnett sued the Enquirer for libel.

During the ensuing trial, the facts were uncovered, and it became clear that the Enquirer published the item with reckless disregard for the truth. This proved "actual malice," and the court ruled in Burnett's favor, and she was awarded punitive damages totaling $150,000.

The case is looked back on as a milestone in tabloid journalism accountability. It encouraged other public figures to stand up for themselves in court. However, the ruling did little to keep similar publications from ignoring libel laws.

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8 Comments

justjeff 4 months ago
Anyone who had even read The National Enquirer as anything more as a comical rag sheet is dumber than a brick on toast! That rag has had a decades old "legacy" of "all the facts we can ignore for the sake of a sensational story".

justjeff 4 months ago
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justjeff daDoctah 4 months ago
He WAS... take another look at the photo... It's a certain ex-New York mayor! LOL!
cperrynaples justjeff 4 months ago
Bat Boy was a different paper, but yes he WAS Rudy!
Runeshaper 4 months ago
I'm glad she sued! That whole story was BOGUS!
Pacificsun 4 months ago

Good story! Here's more context. The ruling had no power (authority) to prevent erroneous journalism. But set a precedent for being libel should they print a (a proven) untrue story, but which the victim was willing to pursue in court. Also during a time (before social media) when cheap Tabloids followed the path of Movie Magazines (Rags) which depended upon sensationalism to flourish. Along with providing celebrity scoops and interesting pictures. CB's experience was well published, and partly because of her excellent image and reputation. So it was a major win for the point to be made.
cperrynaples Pacificsun 4 months ago
Carol's beef came from the fact that her father was alcoholic and so she only got drunk in sketches, never in reality!
Both her parents died early from alcoholism. She considered it a personal insult when the Enquirer published that trash--she knew what booze did to her parents, and she'd never overindulge.
MikefromJersey Pacificsun 4 months ago
Forgive me for going off topic here but the 'spy' thread we were both posting at, for some reason
my last 2 attempts at responding to you didn't get put up or were immediately removed????
Anyway, I want to again thank you for your help, the item in question of mine turns out to be
worth $80 - $150. Maybe it was perceived that we were somehow doing something
commercial on MeTV's board. So I am only vaguely referring to the item.
Thanks again.
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