Thursday, October 18, 2007

If You Can't Report Something Nice, Go To Jail!

A Salt Lake City judge has sentenced a reporter with KUTV to do a public-service story or go to jail. This is Katie Baker's punishment for interviewing a potential juror in the Warren Jeffs trial, in violation of a decorum order set by the court.

From the AP:
"She violated the order," Baker's attorney, Jeff Hunt, told The Associated Press. "But she did that not knowing it was prohibited by the court. It was a mistake."

During a hearing, [Judge James L.] Shumate accepted Baker's explanation but gave her 90 days to complete a public-service story and provide a DVD to the court or be found in contempt, Hunt said.

"It does bother me a little bit that he would order a reporter to do a story. ... The station is reviewing its next steps," the attorney said.

Hunt said the judge did not explain what story would meet his public-service benchmark. Shumate's office said a written version of the ruling was being prepared.
Some of you press-bashers are saying, "Good, hold reporters accountable!"

But this is not good. This sets a very bad precedent for First Amendment law in this country, and KUTV should challenge this ruling with full force. Where does a judge get off ordering a reporter to do a story -- public-service or not? The judge did not specify a specific topic for this ordered report, but it doesn't matter. If this order stands, the invitation is there for other judges to order up stories if they don't like press coverage.

Suppose a judge ordered the paper to do a positive story on a murder suspect found not guilty. It sounds fair, you may think at first; it's helping to clear the person's reputation. We always think people are tried and convicted in the media, anyway. But think about this carefully. This goes beyond keeping cameras out of the courtroom or moving trials because of publicity. A judge has now become the ultimate editor, deciding what will and what won't be published. Do you want a judge deciding what you read in the paper or watch on TV? Do you want the courts influencing the news agenda in your newsrooms?

Of course some of this is hyperbole, but with apathy towards the First Amendment in this country and the general dislike of reporters in general, it's not much of a stretch. This isn't about whether Katie Baker messed up. She did, and she admitted as such. This is about a judge punishing a reporter by becoming her new editor, if only for one story. Somebody tell me where in the First Amendment Judge Shumate got the right to do that.

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