Unique Gathering, Remarkable Results p.18

By: M.L. STEIN AREMARKABLE THING happened when judges, lawyers and journalists gathered at a unique joint conference in Reno, Nev.
The 120 participants agreed ? mostly ? on a number of issues concerning media coverage of the courts, including cameras in the courtroom, gag orders, access to court records and the protection of confidential sources.
Indeed, the meeting of the minds was so overwhelming that the journalists were stunned ? or at least pleasantly surprised ? as perhaps were some of the judges, lawyers and district attorneys in attendance.
The occasion was the "National Conference on the Media and the Courts: Working Together to Serve the American People."
It was sponsored by the National Judicial College (NJC), which trains judges, and the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), with a grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.
Although the conference on the UNR campus covered a variety of topics relating to court coverage, the O.J. Simpson trial and its controversies pervaded many of the discussions and was partly, at least, the catalyst for the assemblage.
Several O.J. trial veterans were among those invited as speakers or panelists, including Linda Deutsch of Associated Press; Jim Newton and Bill Boyarsky, Los Angeles Times; Shirley Perlman, Newsday; Simpson defense attorney Barry Scheck, and law professors Peter Arenella, Erwin Chemerinsky and Laurie Levenson, TV commentators on the trial.
NJC dean Kenneth A. Rohrs said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the Simpson case, was invited, but declined.
The agreements on media access to the courts were worked out in 10 small-group breakout sessions involving judges, lawyers and media
While their consensus is not binding on any judge, the fact remains that judges and district attorneys from all over the country returned to their jurisdictions with perhaps a better understanding of the media's request for greater access to court proceedings. There was general accord for a "presumption" that cameras should be allowed in both criminal and civil trials.
The conferees also said:
u Gag orders by judges should be used rarely in criminal cases and be issued only after a formal hearing with the press present, and "never to shield judicial performance." Deutsch called such orders a "gag of the press."
u Judges should not deny the media access to a proceeding before holding a hearing involving all parties.
u The presumption should be that all documents filed in court are open.
u Reporters should not be considered an arm of law enforcement or a "tool" for parties to civil and criminal litigation.
u Abolish grand jury se-crecy.
u Judges need to be more willing to answer general questions from the press on pending cases.
u Secret settlements involving public agencies should be prohibited.
Participants in almost all of the sessions urged ongoing dialogue between the press, bar and media in an organizational setting such as the committee that operates in Washington state.
Journalism also came in for its share of the "clean up your act" approach.
One proposal read: "Journalists should cover journalism with the same scrutiny and vigor as other groups and should encourage ombudsmen systems wherever feasible."
"Establish newsroom procedures for handling complaints about the press," another group recommended.
It also was suggested that the media devote more resources to trial coverage and that journalists ought to be better trained about the court system. One panel went so far as to advise the media to establish a "self-administered certification" of reporters.
However, Scheck, in a panel during a general session, did not seem ready to embrace the media. He lashed out at the television legal pundits on the Simpson trial, calling for their absence in future high-profile cases unless they "raise the level of their commentary."
He also deplored "sound-bite reporting" and commercial television's absorption with trivial aspects of the trial "to keep the ratings up."
"Arguments between attorneys are not essential items," he contended. "Bad coverage will drive cameras out of the courtroom."
TV also took its lumps from one of its practitioners, Catherine Crier, a correspondent and sometimes anchorwoman for ABC News.
Crier, a former Texas judge and trial lawyer, blasted the "infotainment" aspect of its Simpson coverage "instead of informing."
Citing the reporting on Nicole Brown Simpson's love life and prosecutor Marcia Clark's relationship with colleague Christopher Darden, she commented: "The notion that the O.J. trial was teaching people about the justice system is ludicrous."
Deutsch countered later: "That may be true for television but not for print. We were providing information."
Arenella, a UCLA law professor who frequently aired his views of the Simpson trial on a Los Angeles TV station, observed: "As long as ratings matter, television will stay that way."
Still, the former trial lawyer and public defender faulted TV coverage of major trials for "creating a media frenzy outside the courtroom" and because "it gives the public the false idea that they can be the thirteenth juror."
Indiana Superior Court Judge Patricia J. Gifford, who presided over the untelevised Mike Tyson rape trial, said the camera in a courtroom is misleading in that viewers are glued to the witness and see virtually nothing else going on in the courtroom, some of which is important to the trial.
Still, she said, she would approve "gavel-to-gavel" photo coverage of trials with a stationary camera.
Former Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner said that the result of the TV reporting of the Simpson trial is that it left the public "profoundly disgusted with what they saw."
He placed a large part of the blame on Ito, who he accused of "a total lack of judicial management of the trial."
Reiner predicted the Simpson case will "permanently define the American criminal trial system and dominate every discussion of media access to criminal trials."
Television may still have a life in the state courts but U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour of Seattle had this view of his domain: "I think O.J. has killed the issue of television in the federal courts for the next two decades."


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