The opinion of the court was delivered by: KNAPP
Plaintiff Renata Adler brings this libel action against The Conde Nast Publications, Inc. ("Conde Nast"), publisher of Vanity Fair magazine, and Washington Communications Corporation, publisher of the Washington Journalism Review ("The Review "). The alleged libel was published in the September, 1983 issue of the The Review in an article written by freelance writer Bruce Cook. The article, "Vanity Fair's Chaotic Comeback: Exit Richard Locke, Enter Leo Lerman" concerned Conde Nast's resurrection of Vanity Fair magazine. The following paragraph of that article was the only one to mention plaintiff, and is the subject of this lawsuit.
If Leo Lerman looked like an interim appointee to some outsiders, that is not how be looked to the Vanity Fair staff. For one thing, he started firing people. Renata Adler was the first to go. Long with the New Yorker, she had been brought in by Richard Locke and held the title of consulting editor. It was a rather mysterious association, for in spite of her modest title, she had the power to assign and buy pieces. She raised some eyebrows around the office when she insisted on publishing a story of hers in the April issue, "Orcas Island," under the pseudonym, "Brett Daniels." It was clearly the work of the author of Speedboat, so why the pseudonym? Adding to the puzzle, the Knopf catalog appeared about the same time the story did, listing a new novel by Adler that made it clear even brief summary that the story by "Brett Daniels" had been excerpted from the novel by Renata Adler. Whether or not Lerman objected to this sort of game-playing or felt that Adler was a luxury Vanity Fair could no longer afford is not known. But he discharged her, paid off authors of the pieces she had assigned and killed them.
Plaintiff claims that the article defamed her by falsely asserting that she was fired, which concededly she was not, for incompetence (buying and assigning pieces that were killed) and dishonesty (passing off her own work on the magazine as the work of another). She seeks $ 500,000 in compensatory and $ 500,000 in punitive damages from The Review and from Conde Nast, whose employees at Vanity Fair allegedly provided Cook with the defamatory information.
Accepting plaintiff's concession that the erroneous statement that she had been fired -standing alone- was not libelous, we previously ruled that it would be possible for one reading the article reasonably to conclude that plaintiff had been fired for professional misconduct, and that defendants were therefore not entitled to dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
All discovery has now been completed and both defendants have moved for summary judgment. The Review claims that the facts establish that it acted neither with actual malice nor gross negligence in publishing the story. Conde Nast claims that no employee with authority to speak for it gave the claimed defamatory information to Cook and that the employee who did provide Cook with such information lacked the authority to bind the Company. It further contends that, in any event, such employee did not act with actual malice or even negligence.
For reasons that follow we grant the motion as to The Review but deny it as to Conde Nast, it appearing that a question of fact remains as to whether an agent of Conde Nast provided the article's author with libelous information.
Renata Adler is an author of considerable renown who, throughout her career, has managed to create a substantial amount of controversy. She has been a writer and reviewer of movies for The New Yorker since 1962. She has also published pieces and movie reviews in The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar, The Atlantic, Commentary, The Village Voice, The National Review, The New York Times Book Review, and The New York Review of Books. She is also the author of four books: two works of non-fiction and two novels. Toward a Radical Middle (1970) is a collection of plaintiff's pieces from The New Yorker, while A Year in the Dark (1971) is a collection of her movie reviews in The New York Times. Plaintiffs' first novel, Speedboat (1976), won the Ernest Hemmingway award in 1977 for the best first novel by an American. Her second novel Pitch Dark, was published in 1983.
Plaintiff's movie reviews have generated a great deal of controversy. In 1968, while she was a movie-reviewer for The New York Times, United Artists took out a full page advertisement in that newspaper which read as follows:
Renata Adler, of the New York times, did not like
She had reservations about
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"
We're not quite sure how she felt about
The majority of other critics ...