Press advocates praise CBS in battle over dragging-death transcript

Friday, November 12, 1999

CBS News produc...
CBS News producer Mary Mapes, center, arrives Nov. 10 at Jasper County Courthouse with attorneys Mike Raiff, left, and Leon Carter, right.

Press advocates are applauding CBS News' decision to post the complete transcript of an interview between anchor Dan Rather and a dragging-death suspect after the network lost a three-week court battle to keep it from Texas prosecutors.

CBS News officials handed the transcript to prosecutors in Jasper, Texas, on Nov. 10, two days after they had exhausted appeals on contempt charges in the state court system. That same day, they placed the transcript prominently on the network's Web site.

Christine Tatum, who chairs the Society of Professional Journalists' Legal Defense Fund, said CBS News fought hard against the subpoena even though Texas lacks sufficient legal protection for reporters' newsgathering efforts.

“I admire that they took this as far as they could,” Tatum said. “And they made this release of information more on CBS's terms. That was very smart of them to put the information out there for everyone. To let the world to see how stupid the prosecutors were in this whole thing.”

For weeks, prosecutors had sought a complete transcript and an unedited videotape of the interview between dragging-death suspect Shawn Allen Berry and Rather. Portions of that interview aired on “60 Minutes II” on Sept. 28.

In news reports and court briefs, prosecutors said they wished to compare Berry's interview statements to others he has provided, arguing the tapes would show he has given inconsistent statements about the June 7, 1998, dragging death of James Byrd Jr.

CBS News officials initially refused to turn over the tape or the transcript. Texas Judge Joe Bob Golden twice ordered Mary Mapes, a Dallas-based producer, jailed on contempt charges for refusing to comply with subpoenas. This week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to hear appeals filed by attorneys for Mapes and ordered the producer to report to jail.

On Nov. 9, CBS News officials and prosecutors reached an agreement whereby Mapes would turn over only the transcript and the contempt charges would be dropped.

“We are proud to have fought this fight, and we have utilized substantial resources to do so,” said Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News in a Nov. 10 statement. “We remain strong in our conviction that a free press is one that is free from government intrusion and interference.”

Heyward said the network exhausted every legal option in the Texas court system, culminating with appeals to the state's highest criminal court. But because the state doesn't have a shield law to protect news organizations from turning materials over to the state, Heyward said CBS News officials felt they had to comply.

“Texas offers no legal protection in criminal cases for unpublished materials,” he said. “As a result, in the last decade, many news organizations have turned over unpublished material to Texas law enforcement and judicial officials.”

The same day Mapes handed prosecutors the transcript, the network posted the complete transcript of the interview on its site.

SPJ's Tatum said that CBS News officials understood they wouldn't compromise their integrity in the matter because the transcript doesn't reveal anything that the initial broadcast didn't.

“In the end, the prosecutors looked even more ridiculous,” she said. “Anyone who has looked at this knows that CBS used the good stuff.”

Lucy Dalglish, incoming executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, agreed.

“It always kind of puzzles me when you get subpoenas for outtakes,” Dalglish told said. “Do they really think they kept the good stuff and didn't broadcast it? If they had really good stuff it would get on the air.”

Tatum did express some regret over CBS's decision not to continue to fight the subpoenas.

“I wish they had pursued this in federal court because I think it really is a matter of principle,” said Tatum, whose group paid Mapes' $250 bond this week to keep her out of jail. “What I really hope for is that the Mapes case is what it's going to take journalists in Texas and across the country to get riled — and I mean really riled — about assuring that we have shield laws in all 50 states.”

But press advocates agreed that CBS News officials, in the end, had no choice but to turn over the transcript.

“I think it was very healthy that they went through all of the time and expense of resisting the subpoena in court,” said Barbara Cochran, president of Radio-Television News Directors Association. “It certainly gave them time to lay out the argument for why prosecutors should not subpoena journalists as part of their investigation.

“But, in the end, the subpoena couldn't have had a different outcome,” she said.