McGuire on Media

Ex-publisher confessions, open meetings and juror insights

Today’s entry will be a bit of a grab bag and I’ll let other people do the heavy lifting.

Alan Mutter’s currrent blog entry features a dynamite piece from an ex-publisher who sold his paper to a big corporation in the 90’s. Characterizing the piece is difficult.  It is alternately angry, reflective, scolding and ultimately damning beyond belief to the newspaper industry. I’d label it must reading. 

The ex-publisher bluntly says people in the newspaper industry do not have the intellectual capacity to work their way out of the current  death spiral. I am hestitant to buy into that because some of the smartest people I know are STILL in the newspaper business, but certainly too many newspaper executives are lacking in courage these days and perhaps in my day. The ex-publisher  frets for the future because the abysmal pay scale of newspapers is chasing away the best and the brightest young people who may want to pursue journalism.

Mutter’s guest commentator blasts the ball out of three or four parks with this: “(the) challenge is to make the transition to thinking about content, not newspapers.” I have talked all around that same point, but I’ve never said it as eloquently. What many of us want to save is not a 13 by 21 sheet. We want to save the penetrating, aggressive, investigative journalism that loves communities and nations and holds them accountable at the same time.  We want to protect the content that enriches the marketplace of ideas the way newspapers once did, and still do too infrequently. Let’s focus what intellectual capacity we have, and whatever courage we can muster, to save the content that stirs communities of all sorts.

An open meeting in the newspaper?

The Arizona Republic wrote a fine editorial this morning on one of those issues that makes a law school graduate like me wonder why we continue to make more lawyers.  The pool is obviously too diluted to produce rational thinkers.

It appears lawyers  in the Phoenix area are advising city and school officials they can’t answer a reporter’s question or write an essay for a newspaper for fear they will violate the open meeting law. This advice apparently stems from what the Republic properly calls a “tortured reading” of a 2005 opinion which warned public officials not to use email to circumvent the state’s open meeting law. 

Lawyers like this should be forced to wear scarlet letters and the rest of us should be able to laugh and hoot and point at them on the street.  Clearly the intent of email communications among council members is to hide from the public. Communication in a newspaper is designed to share  with the public. Back when I went to law school we were told legislative and adminstrative intent was where we should start with our analysis. Hide. Share. Hide. Share. Hide. Share. Here’s hoping the Valley lawyers figure out that intent quickly. 

The editor who named the jurors speaks

On Sept. 14 I used Bob Steele”s Poynter ethics process to analyze a piece Poynter’s Al Tompkins did on the Connecticut Post’s decision to run the names of jurors before a trial. You can find my piece below and you will see that I came to the conclusion I would not have run the names prior to this trial.  Jim Smith, the accomplished and much decorated editor of the Post, wrote me a gracious disagreement.  After some private (nice) comments he told me I could use the following in my blog.  For years I told columnists that they got the first shot and they ought to let the column subject have the second shot unencumbered by their defensive bleats. I will follow my own advice and allow you to read the eloquence of Jim Smith without my comments.

It was creative of Tim to use Bob Steele’s 10 points on ethical decision making. The news staff of the Connecticut Post spent several months writing our own code of ethics, patterned after the many national codes. It is available at ConnPost.com.Juries have been public in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence since the 11th Century A.D., and enshrined in the American Bill of rights in 1791.The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Constitutional right to public juries.

Press-Enterprise v. Superior Court (1984) was one of those rulings.In his concurring opinion Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that defendants’ rights “are most severely jeopardized when courts conceal from the public sensitive information that bears upon the ability of jurors impartially to weigh evidence.” Justice Harry Blackmun held, “It is difficult to believe that when a prospective juror receives notice that he is called to serve, he has an expectation . . . that what he says in court will be kept private . . . a trial is a public event.”The Court held that jury selection must be held in open court unless a particularized showing can be made that permits overriding the public’s right to know. “The open trial thus plays as important a role in the administration of justice today as it did for centuries before our separation from England. The value of openness lies in the fact that people not actually attending trials can have confidence that standards of fairness are being observed,” wrote Chief Justice Warren Burger.

Two years earlier in supporting The Boston Globe’s right to publish jurors’ identities, the First federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, “Knowledge of juror identities allows the public to verify the impartiality of key participants in the administration of justice, and thereby insures fairness, the appearance of fairness and public confidence in that system.”

Bob Greene, the legendary investigative editor at Newsday and a Hofstra journalism professor, shared this with me:“All trials should be public. Period! Centuries ago, starting in Britain with the Star Chamber courts, we have demanded openness in our judicial proceedings. In the beginning, in small-town America, everyone in town knew the people serving on any given jury. They could also advise the court that a juror was an intense bigot, that a juror had secret business dealings with a defendant or one of the prosecutors, etc. The people could also see that a jury in the trial of a black man, was being stacked with racists.

“People sitting in the courtroom, when a jury is being chosen, can learn the juror’s name, occupation, home community, reading habits, etc. News reporters in the courtroom are there as the eyes and ears of members of the public, who cannot be present. Why should they be prohibited from or chastised for telling the public information that anyone sitting in the courtroom can hear? Beware of moves by prosecutors, lawyers or judges to limit the public’s right to know every detail of a trial.”

I think it is important to note that in the Peeler case not the prosecution, nor the defense, nor the court moved in any way to close the voir dire. In fact, the judge several times said to individual prospective jurors that there is a reporter in the room and there would be publicity. Not one of those jurors expressed concern.The defendant, sitting at the defense table during voir dire, had every name, every street address of every juror. If the court was concerned about their safety it could have moved to make their names private. After the story appeared two jurors asked to be excused and were. The other jurors said the fact that they were named would not affect their ability to serve.

I wonder whatever happened to citizenship education that so many in the public think jury duty is a private duty. The press has not done a very good job in informing the public about these basic rights and responsibilities in a free society.

The public has a right to know who is sitting in judgment of a defendant. And in this case, who will decide if the man lives or dies.I wholly disagree, Tim, with your characterization in #9 that I am telling my industry colleagues that “their long-standing practice of protecting jurors is some sort of chicken-hearted action.” There was a time, I believe, when newspapers covered voir dires and named jurors often. I certainly did. Newspaper staff cutbacks have reduced voir dire coverage.

I am not telling the judge and attorneys the newspaper doesn’t care if you think we endangered the fairness of the trial. To the contrary I believe public trials and public juries insure a fair trial.I believe in the five W’s — who, what, when, where, and why. And I believe you have to have a very good reason to leave out any of them — especially the who.If you decide to do an enterprise story, a public service piece on the difficulties of finding people who say they can decide life or death for a human being; devote more than a month to reporting and writing it; it becomes even more important to adhere to journalistic rules about the important ingredients to a credible story. If we don’t adhere to our own principles and rules of storytelling — the building blocks of daily journalism — if we agree to leave out important facts, important people because others think we should, how are we being faithful to the responsibilities of a free press guaranteed in the First Amendment?

If we do not defend an unfettered press as a bulwark for democracy, who will? 

Those who govern us, executive, legislative, judicial, often would prefer it if we’d go away. How much easier it would be to govern then.Let the debate go on between free press and fair trial, let ethical decisions be made, but don’t abdicate our responsibility to inform the democracy.

Thanks for the opportunity to write.

Jim Smith

Editor

Connecticut Post Bridgeport, CT