When the press is part of the story
SALT LAKE CITY — There's nothing like having a couple of major news stories break in your city to focus your attention on the tactics and ethics of the press, the police, the law, the victims, and the various other parties. Especially when your own newspaper becomes part of the story.
In Salt Lake City, where I edit the afternoon Deseret News, that has happened to us in recent days.
The first story concerned the attempt by opponents of Mitt Romney to derail his campaign for the Massachusetts governorship by questioning his eligibility as a resident.
That had a Salt Lake City angle because although Mr. Romney had been a longtime Massachusetts resident, he spent three years in Utah masterminding the 2002 Olympic Games.
In marshaling their case, the anti-Romney folks researched the files of the Deseret News, and focused on an interview in 2000 by Lisa Riley Roche, the paper's lead reporter on the Olympics, in which Romney discussed the tax status of a home he owns in Park City, Utah. So they sought to cross-examine Ms. Roche about information she had gathered in reporting about Romney and use it in proceedings before the Massachusetts Ballot Law Commission to challenge Romney's candidacy. Our phones rang with inquiries from The Boston Globe, Boston radio and TV stations, and other news organizations.
At my direction, our reporter refused to testify. We were perfectly comfortable with asserting the accuracy of the stories Roche had written, and with those published stories being quoted. But we believed the reporter's role was, and is, to report the story, not become part of it.
We believed the First Amendment protected her journalistic independence, and her relationships with news sources, and precluded her being used as a discovery tool for litigants in this case political parties and candidates.
The anti-Romney lawyers pushed. We resisted. We went to court. The judge threw out the attempt to cross-examine our reporter but ruled she could sign an affidavit affirming the accuracy of the story in question. We believe the First Amendment was protected, while the public interest was appropriately served.
The second story concerns the abduction of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, which brought hordes of visiting newspeople to Salt Lake City, and has been national, and even international, news.
Elizabeth's father and uncles have been prominent on local and national TV as spokesmen for the family. One of the uncles, Tom Smart, is a longtime employee of The Deseret News, a senior photographer. As is routine in such cases, he and other family members have been asked to take polygraph tests. They did so freely. Police have made it clear that family members are under as much scrutiny as, but not more so than, anybody else in this tragedy, which has been scant on clues about the abductor.
Nonetheless, some national and local reporters have written stories, attributed to unnamed sources, focusing on family members as serious suspects.
The tabloid National Enquirer has offered a story about the private lives of some family members so lurid that some Salt Lake City supermarkets have refused to display or sell it. One can imagine the pain this has caused a family preoccupied with the search for the missing teenager.
The abduction has generated intense public interest, for a variety of reasons. Platoons of reporters and camera crews, assembled at considerable expense, feel obliged to feed that hunger. When days go by with few new developments, the gruel some of them offer their readers and viewers is often thin, and sometimes adulterated.
Meanwhile, family members of the abducted child, and police investigating the crime, have still different agendas.
The family, understandably, wants maximum media exposure for a search that they hope will bring Elizabeth home. The publicity, along with a natural inclination on the part of Utahns to help their neighbors, has turned out thousands of searchers.
The police have their own single-minded agenda: to catch the abductor(s) and make him (or them) talk. They admit to manipulation of the media in the sense that they are holding back a considerable amount of the information, while dribbling out other information that they hope will help their investigation.
For the public, the press is the principal chronicler of the various agendas in these human dramas. The irony is that, willingly or unwillingly, the press is itself a player. The people must make up their minds which of the chroniclers are responsible, and which irresponsible.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of The Deseret News.