By: M.L. Stein State press association's board originally votes to condemn judge's request for an investigation of leaks to the media regarding a probe of his conduct; vote is later rescinded sp.
THE NEVADA STATE Press Association's board and some newspapers are split over whether to condemn a judge's request for an investigation of leaks to the media regarding an official probe of his conduct. Initially, by one vote, the board endorsed a press release by the association's executive director, Ande Engleman, that would have put the association on record as opposing Washoe County District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead's request, saying it would violate the First Amendment. A later vote put a hold on sending it out. The Reno-based judge is under scrutiny by the state Judicial Discipline Commission for allegedly having improper contacts with persons involved in cases before him. Whitehead has asked the state Supreme Court to appoint a special master with power of subpoena to look into leaks to the media in connection with the commission's investigation of him. Before sending out the press release, Engleman filed a personal complaint with the commission over two Supreme Court justices' handling of the Whitehead case. A recent telephone poll among NSPA board members on Engleman's press release produced a 4-3 vote endorsing it. But later, Ward Bushee, executive editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal, withdrew his "yes" vote and registered an abstention, which rescinded the tally. Ken Ward, assistant managing editor of the Las Vegas Sun, also abstained. Bushee, NSPA's immediate past president, said he changed his mind when he later read the release. He said in an interview that the document was "misrepresented to me." He also said he had been under the impression that the vote was unanimous and "showed unity." The editor said he concluded that Whitehead's request for a probe of leaks to the media does not represent a threat to the press. "My feeling is that if it was an attack on reporters, we would all be up in arms about it," he stated. Bushee said his viewpoint was not influenced by the fact that Whitehead is the Gazette-Journal's former counsel. "I wasn't here then, and we have attacked him on other issues," he explained. A similar objection to the press release was made by Mike O'Callaghan, executive editor and board chairman of the Sun, who cast one of the no votes. Joining him were Susan Brockus of the Humboldt Sun and Tim O'Callaghan, Mike's son and general manager of the Boulder City News and Green Valley News, both published by his father. "We can holler wolf only so many times," said Mike O'Callaghan, a former governor of Nevada. "There is no First Amendment issue at this time. Right now, they are investigating themselves. When they start bothering reporters, that will be another matter. We have the shield law to protect them." But Engleman and others took the opposite view. "It's absolutely incredible that the board is not supporting the press release," Engleman said. "The purpose of the association is to foster and advance freedom of speech and freedom of the press and to take action that will guarantee those objectives." She pointed out that the shield law does not protect exposed sources. The Nevada Appeal in Carson City jumped into the controversy with an editorial claiming that NSPA "dropped the ball" by rescinding its support of the press handout. "It's a shame because the statement represents everything the association should stand for, most notably the steadfast and unwavering commitment to the First Amendment," the paper commented. In the press release, NSPA president Ann Pershing, general manager of the Lahontan Valley News/Fallon Eagle Standard, is quoted as saying of Whitehead's request, "Such a move, if granted, would allow the court to be able to investigate anyone who talks to the press. "This appears to be a witch hunt initiated to hunt down sources. This would impair the ability of newspapers to do their jobs. People would be afraid to talk to the press and sources would dry up." Las Vegas Review-Journal publisher Sherman Frederick termed Whitehead's action "a bizarre, back-door source hunt." He added, "People are often reluctant to talk in the first place. "If there is a fear of being discovered and punished lit will make it even tougher to reach them."