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Libel in Fact...The Storm Clouds Gather

Had libel occurred in (the magazine) Fact? The controversy intensifies.

Then-Senator Goldwater was the Republican candidate running against President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 Presidential election.

Libel laws provide boundaries as to what one person can say about another; as such, they are germane to how we judge personality.

The 1964 issue of Fact had contained two articles on Goldwater's personality. The first was a psychobiographical analysis of his behavior, the second a survey of 12,356 psychiatrists asked to judge his mental condition. Together, the articles depicted Goldwater as aggressive, paranoid, "hypermasculine" (so as to cover up doubts about his sexuality), and, if elected president, a danger to his country.

Several weeks before the issue of Fact arrived at newsstands, the magazine had taken out a series of full-page advertisements to publicize the forthcoming results of the poll of psychiatrists.

At the height of cold war concerns about nuclear war, one advertisement posed this question: "What do psychiatrists think of Goldwater's fitness to keep his finger on the atomic trigger?"

According to the October 2nd issue of the New York Times, the advertisements for Fact had brought about inquiries from "many sources," including from a private organization named the Fair Campaign Practices Committee. (The Committee is not further identified in the article, but may have been an election-monitoring committee of the League of Women Voters). The Committee noted that it received complaints regarding the ads both from Republicans and Democrats.

The arrival of the September/October issue of Fact at newsstands only intensified the reaction.

The New York Times reported in the same article of October 2nd that the directors of American Psychiatric Association were greatly dissatisfied with the survey of their members. The NY Times' report was headlined: "Doctors Deplore Goldwater Poll." The APA president and medical directors had written a signed letter to Fact that stated (in part):

"By attaching the stigma of extreme political partisanship to the psychiatric profession as a whole in the heated climate of the current political campaign, Fact has in effect administered a low blow to all who would advance the treatment and care of the mentally ill of America."

The letter's signatories described the poll as a "hodgepodge" of the personal political opinions of the physicians, rather than as representing any professional opinion of the society.

The psychiatric association further denied that it had supplied the names of MDs to Fact (as the magazine claimed), stating instead the names had been supplied by a New Jersey company that dealt in mailing lists.

In November, 1964, Senator Goldwater lost his presidential bid by a landslide against President Johnson.

A year passed with no further reports on the matter -- at least in the New York Times.

Then, on September 5th, 1965, Senator Goldwater sued Ralph Ginsburg and Fact magazine for libel in Federal District Court, for 2 million dollars.

In a news conference held at his mid-town office, Mr. Ginzburg emphatically defended his journalism as "a valuable service" to the electorate -- as he would again in the upcoming trial.

In recounting the story so far of the libel case against Mr. Ginzburg, there are a number of points worth noting.

First, it simply is not possible for a reader of an article to evaluate whether libel has taken place without some sort of supporting investigation.

Second, Mr. Ginzburg claimed that he genuinely believed Mr. Goldwater was a potential menace to the country; Senator Goldwater, on the other hand, believed that to be untrue.

Mr. Ginzburg believed it was urgent for the country to know the truth about this political candidate, and perhaps he was right; Mr. Goldwater believed his character was unfairly maligned, and perhaps he was right.

The psychiatric elements of this particular case -- its focus on Senator Goldwater's mental processes and character -- render it especially relevant to judging personality, and the many possible ways one might do so.

More on the case next week...


"Doctors deplore Goldwater Poll. Denounce Fact Magazine's Survey of Psychiatrists" New York Times, 1964, October 2nd, p. 20.

"'64 Poll of Psychiatrists on Goldwater Defended" New York Times, 1965, September 5th, p. 42.

"Libel Suit by Barry Goldwater Against Magazine Due for Trial" New York Times, 1968, May 5th, p. 62.

Copyright © 2009 John D. Mayer