By: Joe Strupp
Eve Burton’s 42nd-floor office in Hearst’s towering Manhattan headquarters offers the usual trappings of any law office: artwork on the walls, shelves of law books, and assorted professional souvenirs from nearly two decades of lawyering. But her favorite possession is a giant wooden gavel ? dubbed “Burton’s Subpoena Quasher,” a gift from Hearst Magazine executives.
It’s a fitting mini-monument to Burton, who has served the company for five years but has some 20 years of journalism legal experience, much of it defending reporter rights. While she handles a corporate post as Hearst vice president and general counsel, her demeanor and personality better reflect the hard-driving First Amendment lawyer she has been for most of her career.
“Not only does she bring passion to the rights and freedoms of the press, but a depth of knowledge about those issues,” says Hearst Newspapers President George B. Irish. “She is a strong advocate.”
Since coming to Hearst in 2002 after stints as a top attorney for CNN and New York’s Daily News, Burton, 49, has pushed a new approach that includes using the company’s own attorneys more often in local cases; challenging access and source protection with greater success; and taking the overall view that advancing journalistic rights is also advancing good business.
“I’ve hired the best lawyers money can buy,” Burton says, sitting on a white couch in her office, a coffee mug in hand. Burton has also changed the culture of the legal team, pushing to have her 30-person attorney staff handle more legal needs at the company’s 12 daily papers and other publications. “When I started, 80% of the work went out of the office, 20% was in-house,” she recalls. “Since 2005, it has flipped.”
Burton cites three cases in the past year that Hearst won in Texas for the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle, in which Deputy General Counsel John Donella personally handled the legal representation involving prior restraint, newsrack placement, and privacy. “In Texas, you aren’t supposed to be able to win a case without a Texas lawyer,” she says. “But when you are paid by the hour, you do not work the same as when you are paid by salary.” Burton says her staff has also won about $250,000 in legal fees in just the past year alone, money that she has routinely allowed local papers to keep: “When you own the newspaper, you want to put your resources into affirmative newsgathering.”
Burton has led the way in a number of key Hearst legal fights, ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle’s defense of two reporters in the BALCO steroid case to last year’s settlement of the protracted JOA fight between Hearst’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the rival Seattle Times, which occurred just weeks before a likely bitter and potentially costly trial. The Chronicle reporters remained out of jail and never revealed their sources for leaked grand jury documents, while the P-I kept operating under a new JOA arrangement that will likely keep it going for at least another eight years (after the Times had sought to end the deal and drive the P-I out of business).
“I have found it is always better to resolve issues with your business partners,” says Burton. “Litigation is rarely productive in those situations.”
The Columbia Law School alum has also overseen numerous press access and FOI cases, including a 2006 lawsuit by the Albany, N.Y., Times Union against leaders of the New York State legislature for access to the previously secret “member item” allocations, a case that Burton argued herself in New York State Supreme Court in Albany and won. “She loves newsrooms and what it is they do, and has boundless optimism and confidence,” says Phil Bronstein, the Chronicle’s former editor who currently serves as editor-at-large. “She is dedicated and relentless and committed.”
A New York City native, Burton’s career has spanned Save the Children, the United Nations, and the U.S. General Accounting Office. Involvement in human rights and international issues led her to Columbia University Law School, from which she graduated in 1989.
Two First Amendment cases during her clerkship with Federal Judge Leonard B. Sand hooked her on constitutional rights and freedom of the press. “Both of them were cutting-edge cases,” she recalls about the legal battles that involved press access during the first Persian Gulf War and an ACLU challenge to U.S. funding of foreign religious schools. “They pressed the law forward in that area.” She had also gotten married to a journalist, John Finck, from the Bangkok Post, a few years earlier. In 1990, when the clerkship ended, Weil, Gotshal and Manges hired Burton as an associate attorney, placing the Daily News and New York Post among her clients until 1995 when the Daily News hired her full-time as its deputy general counsel, a post she held until 2000.
When Burton got to the Daily News, it had 20 pending libel lawsuits, 19 of which she won. She also led the effort for access to New York State’s family courts. “I consider that my single greatest contribution to jurisprudence,” Burton says of the family court fight. “I brought dozens of cases that changed areas of the law.”
She got one of her first tastes of reporter protection while representing Daily News reporters Jerry Capeci and Tom Robbins in their fight against subpoenas in the contempt trial of attorney Bruce Cutler, who was charged in 1991 with violating a court order not to speak with reporters about the trial of mob boss John Gotti. When the reporters were subpoenaed to turn over notes and confidential sources and to testify, Burton fought the order to the point where the testimony was eventually limited only to what they had reported in the newspaper.
“She can deal with the white-shoe law firms and get down to our level, working closely with reporters,” says Capeci, who now runs the ganglandnews.com site. “She knows the hassles and problems we have.”
In 2000, Burton joined CNN as general counsel, quickly becoming involved in the U.S. Supreme Court review of the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida. As the justices prepared to meet to essentially decide the election’s outcome, CNN sued for press access to the proceedings, winning the right to set up an audio feed. “We knew they wouldn’t allow television, so we decided we would go for the audio,” she recalls. “My primary role ended up being to sit in the newsroom and tell [CNN journalists] who the principles were [during the debate]. ‘That one is Souter, that is Rehnquist.'”
After spending a year teaching journalism at Columbia University during which she co-wrote the journalism school’s legal curriculum update, Burton joined Hearst in November 2002.
Although her job includes big-time cases like Seattle’s JOA and the BALCO defense, a typical day brings a variety of legal issues from each of Hearst’s print and broadcast outlets. When E&P visited her in mid-March, Burton had spent much of the day in meetings related to a unspecified potential lawsuit against Marie Claire magazine; a meeting on an acquisition of a B-to-B property; and a gathering of a committee upon which she serves that reviews the state’s judicial court system.
Asked for the biggest issue to face media attorneys in the coming years, she answers,”source-related,” explaining, “It’s the fear… that doing good investigative work is balanced against the willingness to go to jail.”