Thursday, November 3, 2011

This article was printe last year by a reporter:
Honest, judge, we’re on our best behavior
I don’t mind being threatened by government types every once in a while. It gets the blood pumping and has happened often enough over the years is amuses me more than anything else at this point.

Advertisement Advertise with Us But most public officials have the common courtesy to deliver their threats in person, or at least through an appropriate taxpayer-funded lackey, rather than sending their pronouncements through a working journalist.

Such courtesy was not extended during the run up to Gov. Mike Easley’s plea hearing Tuesday. Here’s what happened.

Various scruffy media types from around Raleigh and beyond were gathered in courtroom 10C at the Wake County Courthouse. About 15 minutes before Easley’s hearing is set to begin at noon, one of the cameramen says that somebody has requested said scruffy media types to assemble in the courtroom next door.

When we arrive, Ed Crump, (link) a reporter for the Raleigh ABC affiliate delivers the following lecture to his colleagues:

Crump started by saying he called us because, “Judge (Donald) Stephens, who for those of you who don’t know, is the senior resident superior court judge and basically god of the courthouse, knows me and Chad, he asked us to talk to all of you all of you all and say that he is the one who enabled us to have cameras in here – obviously reporters can be in here no matter what he says. But he’s very concerned about the sanctity of the courthouse. He particularly does not want photographers chasing Easley down stairwells. He said he can hold you in contempt in this courthouse and on the immediate grounds, the front steps, the back steps, and he will do that. And he…”

At this point, I interrupted and said something like … let me check the tape … yup, I said: “Why doesn’t he have the balls to deliver that message himself?”

Crump replied, “You can ask him if you like. I’m just imparting what he said.”

And therein lies the problem.

The judge’s message is condescending at best. He assumes that a group of professional reporters is going to act like a bunch of feces-flinging monkeys. He also is delivering a couple different threats. Aside form the contempt warning, we got an additional warning from Crump that Stephens made decide to change the “general rules for the courthouse” for everyone if things were to go badly. In essence, he was saying that North Carolina’s supposedly open courts could get a little less open if Stephens doesn’t like how we conduct ourselves.

Judges, particularly senior resident superior court judges, have latitude to say stuff like that. It doesn’t make it right, but he’s a judge and can condescend all he wants.Reporters suck it up, act professionally, and go about our business to get the job done.

Stephens does lose style points for not delivering the message himself or at least having one of the imposing-looking sheriff’s deputies on hand give us the warning. Heck, the elected sheriff for Wake County was in the courthouse and probably would have been a lot less ham handed. Stephens also loses a few credibility points because I happen to know that Easley was pursued after the hearing by reporters – who may have happened to have cameras but weren’t strictly speaking photographers – from the courthouse to little or no ill effect. (No, I wasn’t one of them.)

But Crump should know better.

He made himself an agent for the Court in general and Stephens in particular. It is one matter to cooperate with the courts to set up orderly pool feeds for trials – as WRAL kindly does much to the relief of my friends in the electronic media. It’s quite another to deliver the threat of judicial citation, jail time and a potential bar to doing one’s job. Crump should have handed that task, respectfully, right back to the judge.

As professional journalists, it is unseemly and unprofessional to communicate threats on behalf of the people we’re supposed to be covering. There’s a not-so-fine line between being friendly and respectful toward your sources and being co-opted by them.

Posted by Mark Binker on Tuesday

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