When Leah Kaelin was allegedly gang-raped at a U.S. Air Force base in June 2003, the military didn’t seem to care. She wasn’t provided a victim’s advocate, wasn’t updated on forensic tests, and tried without success to learn what was happening in her case.
But Denver Post reporters Miles Moffeit and Amy Herdy did care, and they detailed Kaelin’s case in one of their series of articles about abuse in the military. It was only after the reporters began asking questions at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, that an investigator contacted Kaelin with the lab results of her rape analysis—eight months after Kaelin came forward.
Eventually, the Air Force prepared to court-martial Airman Basic Matthew Monroe for the alleged attack. It looked like Kaelin would see justice done. But what Moffeit saw was a subpoena from the military court: Monroe’s defense lawyer asked the court to force Moffeit to turn over his notes from reporting the story.
In a scenario that has played out in other courtrooms in recent months, Moffeit has refused the court’s demand. He said the notes contained conversations with Kaelin, her mother, and her husband—some of which Moffeit agreed not to make public. The Post fought the subpoena, citing First Amendment rights, the need for sensitive handling of rape victims, and the fact that the defense was not specific about what it sought from the notes.
Moffeit faced the possibility of going to jail if the court upheld the subpoena and he continued to resist. That risk was lifted when the prosecution fell apart last week, apparently because Kaelin decided to pull out. (The military will handle Monroe’s case “administratively.”)
But similar threats to other reporters remain. On December 8, The New York Times‘ Judith Miller will argue her appeal of a jail sentence she received for contempt of court because she refused to say who named the CIA operative Valerie Plame to her. Miller never published a story on the agent, but columnist Robert Novak did in July 2003. The person who leaked Plame’s name might have violated federal law. It is unclear if Novak has talked to the feds.
The day after Miller’s hearing, Rhode Island television reporter Jim Taricani will learn his sentence for refusing to say who illegally leaked a videotape that was part of a corruption investigation. Even though the leaker has come forward on his own—and claimed that he never demanded confidentiality—Taricani could still go to jail.
Amid the rash of cases in which courts are squeezing reporters to name sources, Democratic senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut recently proposed a federal shield law protecting reporters’ unpublished information from the courts. Veteran First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said the time for such a law has come.
“Taking them all as a whole, I do see an explosion of efforts to coerce reporters into revealing their sources around the country in a wide range of cases,” said Abrams, who is representing Miller. He’s not sure why it’s happening.
“What’s clear is that each one that is added on the pile encourages still more prosecutors and defense counsel alike to try to use the courts to force disclosure of the names,” Abrams said, “and it seems to me that each additional case makes the case more strongly for a federal shield law.”
Ukraine, you saw, you conquered
The election drama in Ukraine is a moving story of people fighting for freedom. But since it’s happening in a country where U.S. troops are not fighting, it’s interesting that the media—not just the national papers but even smaller dailies and broadcast networks—are paying so much attention to it.
The Ukraine story was a front-page lead in the November 28 edition of The Republican in Springfield, Massachusetts. In Minnesota, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that more than 100 Ukrainian immigrants rallied at the state capitol. Ukraine made the editorial pages of The Rocky Mountain News, The Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota, and the Chattanooga Times Free Press. There was also coverage in the Akron Beacon Journal, the Deseret Morning News in Utah, the Contra Costa Times of California, and elsewhere.
And we thought foreign news was dead! Edward Seaton, a longtime proponent of more world coverage and editor of The Manhattan (Kansas) Mercury, said 9-11 revived non-U.S. reporting: “With the emphasis on terrorism around the world, there’s just been a lot more coverage in smaller newspapers.”
But not every story gets the play that the Ukrainian drama has received. Why—or as a Ukrainian might say, chomu—has Kiev so captivated us? Marjorie Miller, the foreign editor at the Los Angeles Times, says in an e-mail that the story’s appeal is multifold: “A disputed election. Tens of thousands in the streets. An East-West tug of war.”
“And,” Miller wrote, “it’s been relatively slow on other news fronts with the Thanksgiving holiday.”
News: There’s news!
The news cycle did seem to eat too much turkey this Thanksgiving. The election was over, Falluja was “pacified,” Yasir Arafat was dead and buried, and Scott Peterson was convicted. But there’s no shortage of headlines at New York’s tabloids.
From the Jason Giambi story to the fireman killed in Iraq to the student medical files the Daily News found dumped on the sidewalk, “it just seems like every day there’s something,” said News editorial director Martin Dunn.
In slow news periods, broadsheets like The New York Times can run analytical pieces and projects on their front pages. The tabs can’t. “We’ve got to come up with something compelling,” Dunn said.
Doing that, said the 30-year tabloid veteran, is more art than science: “It’s all a matter of gut instinct. Normally, there will be one story a day that you can get juiced about.
“If you see something that you can seize and really turn into an event, the readers tend to come along with you.”
What tabloids can do—but broadsheets can’t—to stay relevant, Dunn says, is to “take an attitudinal position” on a story or “be the great conveyor of the story behind the story.”