Journalism is the easiest job in the world.
Well, it must be. Everyone says they can do it better.
This truism was again on display at a conference at the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse this past week where journalists, federal judges and court staffers got together to discuss how the media and courts interact.
One of the presentations was on the recent rash of federal court cases in which journalists have been subpoenaed and told to reveal their confidential sources under pain of being fined and/or jailed for contempt of court.
Though the specific case being addressed was the one about former Los Alamos nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee, who had been jailed after being suspected of leaking nuclear secrets to the Chinese, other well-known cases came up in the discussion — the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame that netted New York Times reporter Judith Miller 85 days in jail, the leak of an FBI surveillance tape that resulted in television reporter Jim Taricani being sentenced to six months of house arrest, and the stories about an FBI investigation of Steven Hatfill that resulted in a judge threatening to fine former USA Today reporter Toni Locy $5,000 a day until she reveals her sources.
But what struck me was a detail about what the judge in the Hatfill case had said to reporter Locy from the bench. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, recounted what federal Judge Reggie Walton said:
"She had no business covering this story anyway until there was an indictment and an arrest," Dalglish said, "which is ludicrous, I mean so beyond the pale I cannot believe it. He also yelled at her for throwing out her notes and saying a responsible journalist would never have thrown out notes."
What a phenomenal lack of understanding of the role of the media and the constitutional underpinnings of this country. None of the stories listed above "targeted" or were even really about Plame, Hatfill, Lee or those caught on the surveillance tape. The stories were about how various federal agencies do their jobs, telling the taxpayers whether they are getting a fair value.
The entire Constitution was drafted to make sure there was a tension and balance between the executive, judicial and legislative branches. Then for good measure — to make sure the citizens are able to keep a close eye on all three — the First Amendment guaranteed a free press.
If Judge Walton wants to show us all how journalism should be practiced, resign from the bench and buy a newspaper press. And he should try reading some of his 5-year-old notes.
Though it’s been more than a century since that sage Kansas editor William Allen White made his famous observation, it remains no less true today: "There are three things that no one can do to the entire satisfaction of anyone else: make love, poke the fire, and run a newspaper."
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Speaking of which, this from the we-are-not-making-this-up file:
The day after Review-Journal columnist Erin Neff penned a piece saying, "It’s long past time for the Clintons and their pit bulls to pull the plug," I had a voice mail from a reader taking considerable umbrage with a line in her column.
Neff suggested that some of Clinton’s core supporters "are better suited for anger management classes than the voting booth."
A shrill voice informed me in no uncertain terms, "I’d like to make a complaint on Erin Neff’s column in today’s Las Vegas Review-Journal saying the people that are supporting Hillary Clinton need to go to anger management classes instead of the voting booth. I take a big offense to that. …
"I don’t need to go to anger management classes," she shouted into the phone. "I think that Erin Neff needs to be told that she shouldn’t be writing such in your newspaper. It’s enough for me to cancel my subscription. The news media is biased enough for this (ethnic slur) and I am not one that will ever vote for him. …
"I am upset this morning, because in my own newspaper a commentary written by someone here in town said I need to go to an anger management class, and that is very upsetting. And thank you for the time."
She gave her name, a rarity for calls of this ilk, but did not leave a phone number so I might call back and politely point out the self-defeating nature of her argument.
Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at email@example.com.