Unlikely as it may sound, a subpoena to testify before a grand jury can be a badge of honor for a reporter - a sign that she's gotten the goods or angered the powers that be.
Not in this case.
Katie Leahan, a reporter and weekend anchor who often covers police and crime for WJZ-TV, is among those who have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury looking into the handling of a secret fund by Edward T. Norris when he was Baltimore's police commissioner. Questions have centered on Norris' use of the fund to pay for thousands of dollars in gifts, meals and trips for himself, friends and colleagues.
According to current and former associates of both, Leahan maintained a friendship with Norris, now the state police superintendent. The two socialized, according to friends, and signs of her warm feelings toward Norris were evident. For a time, she kept a photograph of herself with him prominently at her cubicle at WJZ.
Leahan declined to respond to repeated written and verbal requests for interviews. In a brief telephone exchange yesterday, her lawyer, Henry L. Belsky, said he would not comment. Requests for interviews with Leahan's bosses, news director Gail Bending and general manager Jay Newman, were referred to station spokeswoman Liz Chuday.
Chuday said that WJZ executives have thoroughly reviewed Leahan's work and have directed her not to do any more reports on the fund or on Norris. "This appears to be a private matter that does not involve her work at the station," Chuday said yesterday.
In exploring this situation, some caveats must be noted. Norris has not been charged with any criminal offense. And the investigation is centering on Norris' activities, not, as far as can be discerned, those of Leahan.
But if Leahan had developed a strong bond with the commissioner, why did WJZ allow her to cover the police department he supervised at all?
The answer may have to do with when the station decided to restrict her reporting. Chuday would not specify when WJZ news executives became aware of what she termed "a potential appearance of a conflict of interest." However, she did say: "Senior station management became aware of this issue earlier this year, after Mr. Norris had left his position as Baltimore city police commissioner."
A reporter's cultivation of a news source often can lead to a degree of familiarity. For some, though, the distinction between building a trusting professional rapport and fraternizing excessively can get blurry. Yet a television station's viewers (or a newspaper's readers) should never have to question whether a reporter's first loyalty is to them - and, presumably, the truth - or to those they cover.
"In general terms, any reporter in any medium would be unwise to have a close personal relationship with someone they are actively covering," said Dave Busiek, past board chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, a professional group. "That's one of the fundamental no-no's for any journalist."
"It hurts everyone's credibility," said Busiek, news director at KCCI-TV in Des Moines, Iowa. "You have to stay so far from that line that you can't be accused by anyone of crossing over it." (KCCI is owned by the parent company of WBAL-TV, WJZ's chief competitor.)
Until The Sun disclosed the existence of the then-police chief's fund last summer, Norris had received largely positive press. To some degree, he surely earned it. In tandem with Mayor Martin O'Malley, he helped design an anti-crime agenda that succeeded in reducing violent crime significantly in the city. Norris, who served as Baltimore commissioner from May 2000 to December 2002 before leaving to become chief of the state police, also aggressively pursued friendships with reporters from many local media outlets.
Leahan, who joined WJZ in 1996, has long displayed an interest in the police, and she mentions her passion to honor "fallen heroes" on her online station biography. She has been a frequent presence at the city's Fraternal Order of Police headquarters in Hampden, near the WJZ station on Television Hill. She has helped to raise money to pay for a memorial supported by the FOP that would honor slain officers. Belsky, Leahan's lawyer, also represents the FOP in some legal matters.
"She was extremely helpful," said Dan Fickus, president of the Baltimore lodge of the police union. "She spent a lot of time and effort helping us set up a silent auction to raise more than $50,000 for the memorial. That was a great community service that she did. The [station] should be proud that they have a person like that."
Other area television reporters and anchors are also heavily involved in charitable and civic organizations. In fact, their employers encourage such activities.