Conference Deals With New Challenges Facing Media

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At the annual Fair Trial/Free Press conference sponsored by New York University Law School, reporters and lawyers agreed that a range of factors — from the emergence of blogs to growing skepticism about national security claims made by the government — had influenced the coverage of stories involving courts and the law. As a result, panelists said the line between the right to privacy and the public’s right to be informed had grown that much blurrier.

Participants on the panel included New York County Family Court Judge Jody Adams; FBI spokesman John Miller; television news reporters Andrew Kirtzman and Melissa Russo; and New York Times reporter Adam Liptak. Judith Kaye, chief judge of the state of New York, led the discussion.

Panelists discussed a cornucopia of legal issues stemming from a hypothetical divorce case, in which a powerful lobbyist is accused by his wife of carrying on an extramarital affair and raping their teenage daughter.

In the hypothetical case, records that are ordinarily difficult for reporters to obtain through marital court, surface on a Web log called Tabloid newspapers seize the story, but the U.S. attorney, citing unspecified national security concerns, urges other journalists to stay away. The lobbyist’s daughter is paraded before cameras, but then refuses to testify in person. Illegally tapped phone conversations between the lobbyist and his clients and alleged paramour land mysteriously on a reporter’s desk.

Against that backdrop, reporters and jurists found several points of agreement. Both sides agreed that the privacy of children remained paramount, and deserved protection by the courts and by journalists wherever possible. And both sides agreed that blogs and other independently produced Web sites had complicated but also often aided news gathering and dissemination.

Other topics provoked more conflict.

Eve Burton, general counsel of the Hearst Corporation, a major publisher of newspapers and magazines, said her growing distrust of the government meant she would advise news clients to publish stories “in a New York second” despite official warnings about national security concerns.

“Five years ago, I was much more inclined to listen to what government said and feel it was a genuine concern for a real issue. I have gotten so cynical … and I think the government has the upper hand right now, and it’s created a problem for everybody,” she said.

Kirtzman of WCBS-TV agreed.

“Holding a story is a very serious, consequential act for a news organization,” he said. “If the government wants you to stop doing your job, they better have a convincing reason why.”

Miller, the FBI spokesman and a former journalist, responded by describing occasions where he’d advised reporters to hold off releasing stories involving significant national security matters, including potential terrorist plots in New York.

“As citizens of the world, in the theory that we all serve the public in different ways, but the same public,” reporters rightfully should hold stories if people’s lives are in jeopardy, Miller said.

Journalists on the panel argued strenuously for a federal shield law to allow them to protect confidential sources without fear of prosecution. Jurists, meanwhile, warned that the leak of grand jury testimony was illegal and would put both the leaker and the reporter who publishes the leak in legal jeopardy.

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