On the occasion of MLRC’s 25th Anniversary in 2005, former General Counsel Henry Kaufman penned this essay about the organization's founding and history.
Twenty-five years ago this Saturday …
November 9, 2005
By Henry R. Kaufman
LDRC General Counsel, 1980-1996
Five years ago Harry Johnston, our founding Chair, felicitously recorded his recollections of the Libel Defense Resource Center on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. Harry reviewed the adverse legal developments of the 1970s that led a small group of media lawyers and organizations to come together and take action under the umbrella of LDRC. Recently, Sandy Baron asked me to mark the occasion of LDRC’s – now MLRC’s – 25th anniversary. Drawing upon minutes from the early years, which still exist, permit me to record a few vignettes about the institutional origins of MLRC.
How LDRC Got Its Name: In the beginning, there was LDRC. Actually, just before the beginning there was JMCC – the “Joint Media Coordinating Council.” Our founders were a visionary group. Among their many wise decisions was that this provisional designation was not particular catchy and should be changed. Those who have worked with the organization recently are aware that the process of changing the organization’s name from LDRC to MLRC took several years, study committees, polls and referenda to achieve. Such is the nature of a mature, broadly-representative, democratically-run organization. Not so in 1980. The early minutes reveal that LDRC’s first name change took less than a month. In July of that year, at the first formal meeting of the JMCC, the minutes record the Steering Committee’s consensus that “if possible, a better and more descriptive name should be found for the organization.” Some support was expressed for “Libel Resource Center,” or “National Libel Resource Center" as alternatives, but no final action was taken. The very next month, on August 6, 1990, my proposal to change the organization’s name to the Libel Defense Resource Center was unanimously approved. In some ways it is good to be a founding father, writing on a blank slate, with only a small constituency to consult and persuade. But the decision to change the organization’s name to LDRC was not merely cosmetic. The genius of that seminal act, as it turned out, was the mandate to work intensely on a single issue. That enabled LDRC to focus its activities and to concentrate on developing a solid reputation, unimpeachable credibility and a tradition of excellence. It was not until more than two decades later that LDRC, responding to the broadening needs of its constituency, put “media” back into its name.
The Night LDRC Was Born: On November 12, 1980, a date I have always recalled with fondness because it coincidentally was my birthday, LDRC was formally established at a meeting of its newly renamed Steering Committee. (As this is not the place for extended personal confessionals, let me simply say I was a remarkably young attorney for my age even back twenty-five years ago). On that historic evening, at the University Club on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the Steering Committee’s initial formal acts were to appoint Harry Johnston as LDRC’s first Chair and then to retain me as General Counsel. Victor Kovner’s firm, which I was about to join as of counsel, was designated to provide staff services. In attendance on that evening were other still familiar leaders of the media bar, including Floyd Abrams, Bruce Sanford, Burt Joseph, Chad Milton (then of Employers Reinsurance) and Larry Worrall (then of Media Professional, which celebrated its own 25th anniversary earlier this year).
The Annual Dinner: The annual dinner meeting was from the outset held in November, generally the evening before the PLI Communications Law Seminar. In contrast to the hundreds it now attracts, attendance was at first limited to the handful of members of the LDRC Steering Committee. Other guests, in town for PLI, then asked to attend and informal programs were set up to address issues of concern. Finally, in 1983, the annual dinner morphed into a fundraising event. At first Jim Goodale, PLI’s founding Chair, was concerned that the fledgling LDRC would be unfairly profiting from proximity to his already well-established program. Little did Jim, or any of us, realize that the LDRC dinner would itself become a major annual event, complementing PLI by adding another justification for lawyers travel to New York for the ever-expanding array of November media law meetings and programs. In the early years LDRC’s fundraising dinner was held in the Empire Room, and later the Starlight Roof, of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The formal program attracted celebrated guest speakers ranging from Fred Friendly, Gene Roberts and Judge Harold Tyler at the very first dinner, to the star-studded panel scheduled for tonight’s 23rd annual fundraiser, moderated by Diane Sawyer. The list of luminaries in between is too long to single out, except perhaps for three, with apologies to the many others. Preeminent recognition must of course be given to the program that – at least historically – can never be equaled. In 1992, LDRC had the unparalleled privilege of honoring retired Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, author of New York Times v. Sullivan and father of modern constitutional libel law, who became the first to receive LDRC’s “Brennan Award.” In 1988, the “speaker” was Pulitzer-prize winning political cartoonist, Pat Oliphant. Oliphant set the record for the fewest words uttered; instead, he memorably supplemented his laconic remarks with caricatures of recent U.S. Presidents that he drew as he spoke, his apt and memorable tagline being that “a cartoon without malice is just a joke.” Oliphant’s drawings from that evening hang on the wall of my law office to this day.
The Origin of LDRC’s Logo: The dusty archives record that, on November 11, 1980, just a day before LDRC’s birth, and reflecting optimism that the next day’s founding meeting would go according to plan, I wrote to Bob Scudilari, legendary director of the Random House art department, and asked him to design the logo that still graces (albeit with a couple of different letters) the organization’s letterhead and other publications. I’m not sure how many realize that the striking font and design Scudilari created – LDRC’s initials followed by its full name inside the final letter “C” – can also be found on the classic Random House volume of the Selected Short Stories (published two years earlier in 1978), and also on later reissues of his other works, of Pulitzer-prize winning author John Cheever. Perhaps one of the Cheever “C” covers, presaging the design of LDRC’s logo, resides somewhere on your own bookshelf.
The Original Purposes and Activities of LDRC: Shortly after the founding meeting, our first project was to develop and distribute a promotional brochure, also lovingly designed and produced by Bob Scudilari in the familiar tan colors he selected for LDRC’s letterhead. That initial publication, officially announcing LDRC’s formation, briefly set out the organization’s “goals and activities” central among them “collection and dissemination of dependable … information” and publication of “bulletins and special study reports” for the benefit of “media organizations, attorneys and other groups working to advance the defense of libel and privacy claims.” The fact is that, although our general goals were reasonably well understood, we had no idea specifically how they would be accomplished. The core information gathering and dissemination programs of LDRC were formulated on the fly, adhering to the fundamental premise that developing indispensable, reliable, objective and thus wholly credible data and analyses was the sine qua non of accomplishing LDRC’s mission. Although we were winging it at the time, essentially all of LDRC’s early publications and projects remain central features of the organization to this day.
LDRC Damages, Trials and Other Statistical Studies: The first major statistical study, one that put LDRC on the map in that area, also came about serendipitously. The possibility of developing industry-wide statistics on all aspects of libel claims, related business costs and litigation trends had been discussed early on. It was concluded that such a comprehensive project was too ambitious and might delve into confidential areas not supported by all of LDRC’s constituents. As an alternative, Harry Johnston suggested institution of a “Damages Watch” program, limited to larger damage awards. In 1981, while such discussions were still ongoing, I was invited on short notice to speak at a local media conference. Almost overnight, and literally on the back of an envelope, I pulled together what we then knew about litigation trends, comparing previously published academic studies with LDRC’s our own preliminary information gathering. The reaction to my presentation of even this limited data was so positive that it immediately became evident there was a great thirst for accurate and systematic statistics rather than the anecdotal reports of adverse developments that had typically been the fodder of hand-wringing, but little positive action, by media watchers. LDRC published an early version of my trends summary in one of its first Bulletins. The next year LDRC produced its first two full-blown statistical studies – one covering trials and damages and another summary judgment results. Today, building upon those early studies, MLRC now regularly reports on litigation and other trends and has generated a powerful database of more than two decades of statistical information that is the gold standard in its field.
The 50-State Survey: It was evident from the outset that LDRC’s information gathering had to be national in scope. Again, however, it was not clear precisely how this could be accomplished. Ultimately, we undertook to develop a comprehensive network of correspondents asking them to respond to a “survey” of local developments in every state. We proceeded cautiously, first drafting a tentative survey outline and then publishing sample state chapters in the LDRC Bulletin before rolling out the survey to all 50 states. This sample publication also helped in our recruitment of survey preparers, with Media Professional generously sharing its state by state list of recommended local counsel. We’ve come a long way from the initial arm-twisting that was required to enlist some state reporters. Today, by contrast, many preparers proudly include their survey participation in Martindale and other biographical listings. The nationwide network of top media attorneys we put together also presaged our later establishment of the Defense Counsel Section that has become another vital mainstay of MLRC. As for the form of the published survey, that developed organically as well. At first, I envisioned the survey as no more than a stapled compilation, along the lines of a thick LDRC Bulletin. Happily Bob Stein, then General Counsel of Warner Books, volunteered his art department to help us produce a cover and the 50-State Survey became a book. Not to be outdone by Bob Scudilari’s brilliant logo, the Warner Art Director designed the beautiful three-color cover that graced the survey for more than a dozen years. I’ve always felt it was the change of the cover colors each year that helped to overcome possible resistance to the annual purchase of completely new and updated volumes and that made the survey so financially valuable to the organization. Beginning in 1982 with a single survey, today the 50-State Survey has three annual editions – libel, privacy and employment – and is the backbone of LDRC’s publishing program.
The Biennial Conference: It was understood from early on that LDRC had an information dissemination, and in that sense also an educational, role to play. But we did not initially envision LDRC as the sponsor of educational conferences. This idea, as I recall, was first broached by Terry Maguire, then General Counsel of the American Newspaper Publishers Association (now the NNA), who was looking for a high quality legal program to present as a service to ANPA members. Terry offered to provide administrative and financial support for a substantive program that LDRC would develop and soon thereafter the NAB joined in the effort. The first ANPA/NAB/LDRC conference was held in Chicago in August 1983, “on the tarmac,” as we joked at the time, at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare. We opted for a central location in the mid-West to best attract a national audience of media attorneys. The Conference, held thereafter biennially, soon developed a reputation for excellence and also for programming non-stop sessions, from and during breakfast until after dinner, with panels, expert speakers and specially prepared studies and presentations. Feedback was nonetheless almost unanimously positive, with one notable exception. After each of the early conferences, George Freeman of the New York Times complained that we worked our attendees too hard. George’s view was that a more leisurely schedule should be adopted, where families could attend in attractive and restful settings, the program punctuated by such pleasures as golf and tennis in the afternoon. Some of you may recognize that George’s very different approach became the genesis of the excellent ABA Communications Forum’s Media Law Conference, held each year during the cold winter months at sunny resorts in Florida, Arizona or California. But that was not LDRC’s style. For LDRC the point was always content and hard work. Now, under the new regime, with perhaps greater confidence that an LDRC event can offer a bit of fun as well as education, Sandy and the Board have supplemented the NNA/NAB program with MLRC’s London Conference, held in alternating years. Although the locale is far more exciting, as an old warhorse I’m pleased to see that the London Conference is still run from early morning into the night and that it offers a superb, substantive program.
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I could go on, but I won’t. Let me conclude by simply observing on this, MLRC’s 25th anniversary, that it is most gratifying to see how our early, uncertain efforts to invent an effective coalition for the advancement of the media’s first amendment interests, have been realized. Indeed, our constant striving toward excellence in the work that we did has not only been carried on and sustained under the leadership of Sandy Baron and successor Chairs and Boards, supported by a loyal and ever expanding base of media organizations and defense counsel. It has also been taken to new heights and in new directions that we, the founding fathers and mothers of LDRC, could never have envisioned. So congratulations to all of us – and here’s to the progress and the successes that, building on the solid foundation of its first quarter century, we can optimistically envision the next 25 years at MLRC will bring.