Thursday, July 14, 2005

Abusing reporters

No, this isn't about Judy Miller and Matt Cooper.

Red State Rabble found this article about some lawyers in the Dover case trying to subpoena reporters' notebooks.

Dover Area School Board defense attorneys are fighting to force two local reporters to enter the court battle over intelligent design.

At issue are several articles written June 2004 by Joe Maldonado, a freelance correspondent with the York Daily Record/Sunday News, and Heidi Bernhard-Bubb, a freelance correspondent with The York Dispatch.

The articles were regarding discussions on a proposed biology book during which board members discussed creationism. But in sworn depositions in January, board members denied the remarks attributed to them in the newspaper articles. And in a motion filed earlier this summer, attorneys for the school board asked the court to require Maldonado and Bernhard-Bubb to appear for depositions in the First Amendment lawsuit over intelligent design.

"Only the reporters possess information about their bias, prejudice, interest and motive in their reporting," the motion states.

But Niles Benn, attorney for both newspapers, said the accusations aren't about reporter bias.

"We don't feel there was any bias at all," he said. "The statements were made by the persons quoted. They never asked for retraction, they never asked for a correction."

Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, said he also wants to be able to examine the reporters' notes from the meetings, in order to ascertain whether "they were fair in their stories and were presented in an even-handed manner.

In May, plaintiffs' attorneys subpoenaed Maldonado and Bernhard-Bubb to appear at a deposition[,]… then agreed to accept affidavits supplied by the reporters and their supervisors, swearing to the accuracy of their articles.

However, both sides have to agree to the affidavits in order for them to be admissible in court. And defense attorneys say they want to be able to cross- examine the reporters.

Benn said the entire fight over reporters' testimony would be a moot point if the board had kept its records of its meetings.

According to practice, the school board recorded the two June meetings. However, after the official minutes are typed, all tapes are recorded over.

Randy Parker, Daily Record/Sunday News managing editor, said the newspaper fights to keep its reporters from getting dragged into battles that could jeopardize their "neutral position." And agreeing to the request for reporters' notes and drafts of stories could have a "chilling effect on news-gathering," he said.
Sorry for the lengthy quote, I just wanted to set the stage.

In this case, the school board is being represented by the conservative Thomas More Law Center, and is defending a requirement to discuss IDC in the Dover schools.

Forcing the reporters to turn over their notes is a very controversial demand. Those notes will include off the record comments, irrelevant doodling, and unconfirmed rumors that the reporter chose not to run. The reporters are not parties to the suit, nor is the court being asked to rule on the bias of their stories.

There's a case to be made for requiring notes and testimony when that is the only evidence of a crime. But no crime is alleged here, and if the board members thought they were misquoted, a deposition a year later is not the way to restore their good names.

This is an attack on the freedom of the press. If every reporter thought he or she would be compelled to turn over their notes, they'd never write tough articles about events, and the public would only get mealy-mouthed "he said, she said" stories.

Dover CARES is the slate of candidates out to replace the creationists on the board.