Judges, journalists must find way to work together, panelists agree

Monday, October 9, 2000
Tom Chester

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Judges and journalists should take
affirmative steps to ensure that they understand each other, said several
panelists last week at the conference “News Media and the Law.”

Co-sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association and the First Amendment
Center, the Oct. 6 program featured two panels that examined the often uneasy
relationship between judges, lawyers and reporters.

Moderated by John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center,
the panels discussed gag orders, sealed records, cameras in the courts, leaks,
superficial coverage and other controversies likely to arise in media coverage
of high-profile cases.

Although the discussions sparked some disagreement concerning the
competence of the press in covering the courts and other issues, the panelists
all seemed to agree that greater collaboration between the news media and
members of the legal profession would be beneficial.

“We need more interaction between the press and the legal
profession,” said Thomas Brothers, a state trial judge in Nashville.

The two judges on the “Media and the Courts” panel, Gilbert
S. Merritt of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Adolpho Birch of the
Tennessee Supreme Court, agreed that the judiciary has a responsibility to keep
its proceedings open to the public.

“The judiciary has an obligation to intelligently inform the
public of what we do, because the public has very little understanding of what
we do,” said Merritt. “We are a public institution financed through
tax dollars.

Russell Headrick

“The Constitution requires that records and proceedings of the
judicial institution be open to the public,” Merritt said.

“Without an independent judiciary willing to protect the First
Amendment and the press against contrary public opinion, the First Amendment
and its freedoms become less viable,” he said.

“The independence of the federal judiciary, in turn, depends upon
the public and is therefore dependent on the press which is the only translator
to the public,” Merritt said.

Two of the other panelists admitted that coverage of the courts,
especially the federal courts, leaves something to be desired.

“The quality and experience of journalists covering the courts is
usually pretty bad,” said Kirk Loggins, a reporter who covers the state
courts for The Tennessean of
Nashville. “It is a disappointment to me that we don’t cover the federal

“If there is a court ruling that takes any time to read, it
probably doesn’t get read,” Loggins said.

Tam Gordon, director of communications at the First Amendment Center
and a former reporter for the Nashville
, agreed that coverage of federal courts is lacking.
“At our paper, the training ground for new reporters was the federal

The second panel — “When Lawyers Talk to Reporters”
— was highlighted by disagreements between two attorneys on the panel and
Tom Chester, deputy managing editor of The
Knoxville News-Sentinel

Russell Headrick, a well-known media-law attorney from Memphis, said
that television coverage of courts has “not been helpful” and has
been “more about entertainment than information.”

“Reporters are not neutral,” said Tennessee Solicitor
General Michael Moore. “They usually have an agenda.”

“Of course press coverage of the courts is going to be somewhat
superficial,” said Chester. “We can’t be in every single courtroom
and there are thousands and thousands of cases.”

Michael Moore

Headrick and Moore said that most lawyers were wary to speak to the
press for fear that they would be misquoted.

But Chester said that fear was most often a sign of a lawyer’s
discomfort with seeing his or her own comments in print.

“It bothers me that they (the lawyers) would say that the press
as a general rule garbles lawyers’ comments and misquotes them,” he said.
“Oftentimes, lawyers are unhappy with the press simply because they don’t
like their own comments or quotes when they read them in the paper.”

Seigenthaler concluded the discussion by saying the “more we
creep [toward] closing proceedings in judicial matters, the more rights we are
giving away.”