News is bad all around for journalists

In the courts of law and public opinion, media under siege these days

February 20, 2005|By Ellen Gamerman and Stephen Kiehl | Ellen Gamerman and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

IT WAS a bad week to be a journalist.

Three court decisions went against the media last week: Two reporters from The New York Times and Time magazine face prison time for refusing to name their sources. The governor of Maryland, who barred his staff from speaking to two journalists from The Sun whose reporting he doesn't like, won a dismissal of the newspaper's suit seeking to lift the ban. And, on Friday, the Boston Herald was ordered to pay $2.1 million for libeling a Superior Court judge by portraying him as lenient to criminals and unsympathetic to crime victims.

The decisions come on the heels of recent surveys that reveal the public's increasing disdain for the media - in one, for example, respondents ranked reporters 16th out of 21 professions for ethical standards. It's no wonder some in the media are feeling under attack in the court system and on the public relations front.

"Oh, sure, reporters are under siege," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "There's a distrust of the media. Period."

It was not so long ago that reporters were seen in a more heroic light - consider the Watergate era, when two Washington Post reporters uncovered a scandal that led to a president's resignation and were portrayed in a movie by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

It was also not so long ago that reporters could sometimes find a friend in the courts, one media lawyer said.

"From the public's perspective and also from a judicial perspective, there has been a backlash against the media," said Reid Cox, general counsel for the Center for Individual Freedom, an advocacy group that promotes free press issues. "In the courts now, there's any number of decisions where the media has actually lost rights that it previously had."

Over the past two decades, Cox contends, the courts have compromised the ability of journalists to do their jobs, awarding greater protections for public figures in libel cases and making it easier for plaintiffs to win invasion-of-privacy suits against news outlets. Cox argues that one effect has been the erosion of the landmark ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan - the 1964 case in which the Supreme Court found that the need for open scrutiny and a free media was more important than the damage to public officials from factual mistakes.

"It's like the judges are backing away from constantly protecting the media," Cox said, "and instead are allowing these suits not only to go forward but to prevail."

Last week, a three-judge panel ruled that reporters Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine were in contempt of court for refusing to name their confidential sources to a grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity. They are appealing.

In a separate case, a federal judge tossed out a lawsuit by The Sun seeking to lift Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s freeze-out of two Sun writers. The Sun argued that the ban violated the journalists' First Amendment rights, but the judge ruled that The Sun was seeking "privileged status beyond that of the private citizen." The paper has said it will appeal.

At week's end, the Boston Herald and one of its reporters, David Wedge, were found guilty of libeling Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy in a series of articles published in February 2002. Another reporter was cleared in the case. The newspaper has stood by its reporting.

The recent court setbacks, some fear, give new authority to those already inclined to dislike the media.

"It's starting to feel a little bit like a judicial rout, and that's very worrisome," said Tom Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland. "The common thread here is that people who don't have a lot of use for the press clearly are seizing what they see as their moment. If you're a football team and you sense the other team is buckling, you pour it on and you kill them."

The general public has little awareness or outrage over what the press is going through, Kunkel said, and the media cannot count on a surge of public support in battles of access with government officials.

"The problem is the public does not see the press as its surrogate," he said. "We see ourselves as the voice of the people, the surrogate for the people. But to the public, we're just another institution that they don't have a lot of use for."

The press bears some blame for its current troubles. A series of high-profile scandals, including the serial fabrications of reporter Jayson Blair at The New York Times and the flawed 60 Minutes report about President Bush's Vietnam-era military service, have damaged the media's credibility.

The news industry is under more scrutiny than ever - from Web sites and blogs devoted to rooting out bias, and from within the media itself. News outlets increasingly are assigning reporters to cover their own industry and appointing ombudsmen or public editors to monitor their own doings.

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