Carol Burnett smiled, then burst into tears. It had been five years since the National Enquirer printed a story that the funny lady was spotted at a Washington, D.C., restaurant having ”a loud argument with another diner, Henry Kissinger.” The tabloid also said she ”traipsed around the place offering everyone a bite of her dessert” and spilled wine on another patron. The clear implication was that Burnett was drunk. And that, she said, ”hit me where I live,” because her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, had been treated for substance abuse and both of her parents had been alcoholics. So she sued for libel.
And won. On March 26, 1981, a Los Angeles jury ordered the Enquirer to pay Burnett $1.6 million — $300,000 in personal damages plus $1.3 million as a ”punitive” recompense. During the two-week trial, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and his wife testified that they did trade desserts with Burnett — she had admired their flaming baked Alaska — but that waiters made the switch. And Kissinger, who swore out a deposition on her behalf, told reporters that she acted ”perfectly ladylike” that evening.
It was the first time in nearly three decades that a libel suit against the tabloid had even made it to trial, and other public figures relished the verdict. But journalists and First Amendment activists cried foul over the enormous, arbitrary damages awarded by the jury — after all, the Enquirer published an apology six weeks after running the story. As attorney and press-rights specialist Floyd Abrams warned, such large awards might result in ”less being published.”
But ultimately the case was a skirmish in the ongoing war between celebrities and tabloids. On appeal, Burnett’s award was shrunk to $200,000, and in the end the whole thing was settled out of court, where most such suits are still resolved — including Tom Selleck’s recent $20 million suit against the Globe for implying he was gay and Elizabeth Taylor’s $20 million suit against the Enquirer for claiming in 1990 that she was ravaged by lupus and hitting the bottle again. Taylor, Selleck, and Burnett have never said how much they got, if anything. Inquiring minds still want to know, but the stars’ silence is a free speech limitation that is commonly part of the settlements.
March 26, 1981
Ordinary People pulled in six Oscar nominations, Dallas stood tall in the ratings, Carl Sagan explored the Cosmos in his best-seller, and Dolly Parton worked ”9 to 5” on the radio.