Last week, we attended and reported on a talk at UVA Law School by Dahlia Lithwick, who discussed covering the Supreme Court. Now we bring you coverage of another interesting event, featuring more navel-gazing by legal journalists:
Reporting the Law: A Year-End Review
New York Law School
Moderator: Brian Lehrer, The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC
Panelists: Emily Bazelon, senior editor, Slate; Dirk Olin, editor, Judicial Reports.com; Dan Slater, lead writer, WSJ Law Blog; Candace Trunzo, editor in chief, Star magazine.
The two lawyers on the panel, Bazelon and Slater, are pretty young things — and were smartly dressed for the occasion. Bazelon, whose features are reminiscent of Christy Turlington’s, wore a white v-neck blouse and well-tailored brown sweater. Slater, baby-faced yet lantern-jawed, wore a gray suit with a blue windowpane pattern, a blue patterned shirt, and a dark navy tie with pink stars (très preppy).
Oh, sorry — we got distracted by the superficial. We have more substantive comments as well.
If you’re interested in the legal media, you can read about the panel discussion after the jump.
Lehrer introduced the panel. He noted that back when he specialized in medical and public health coverage, he and his colleagues would constantly lament the inadequacy of the mainstream media’s treatment of these specialized topics. He ventured the opinion that legal coverage is somewhat better, perhaps because a fair number of legal journalists have legal training. Addressing the audience, composed largely of law students, he said: “You may yourself be a disaffected lawyer someday, asking yourself what you can do with your life that you’d find more meaningful, and you may somehow wind up in journalism.”
The discussion started off with Candace Trunzo, who called herself the “black sheep” of the panel (as the tabloid reporter, and perhaps also the least legally-oriented). Describing tabloid publications, she said: “We do sensationalize things. There’s a lot of hyperbole in what we do. But there’s a lot of truth to it.” Trunzo, who previously worked at the National Enquirer, cited the John Edwards affair story as an example.
Dirk Olin asked Trunzo why she felt the MSM ignored the Edwards story for so long. Trunzo ventured the opinion that perhaps they would have covered it more if Edwards were a Republican. She also suggested that perhaps some editors viewed it as an “ugly” story, especially in light of Elizabeth Edwards’s battle with cancer. She concluded: “I can’t really speak for establishment journalism, since it has been a while since I’ve been there.” (Before entering the tabloid world, she worked for Money and for Time.)
Emily Bazelon framed the Enquirer/Edwards issue as a question of limited resources. Publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post have limited (and shrinking) resources, and they have to make tough choices about what to cover and what not to cover. She pointed out that the Enquirer put a lot of resources into this story — which was entirely appropriate, given the Enquirer’s mission. “It did what it does, really well,” she said. “We have other voices now in journalism to propel [stories like this one] forward.”
The discussion then turned to the weightier matter of the Guantanamo Bay detainee cases. Bazelon observed that there has been a lot of excellent print reporting about this story. It’s harder to cover in the broadcast context. Television is a powerful medium, but it’s not well-suited to stories with many complexities (like the Gitmo legal battles).
Olin criticized the media for not offering more coverage of Darrel Vandeveld, the Guantanamo prosecutor who resigned over ethical issues relating to the prosecutions. In response to a question from Lehrer about why the case wasn’t covered more, Olin cited “information fatigue.”
“It used to be easier to tell what the priorities of coverage were,” Olin explained. Readers would consume news from the front page to the back page, from the important to the less important. But new media is more serial, and it’s more difficult for some stories to gain traction.
Olin then turned to discussion of the American Lawyer, where he is a contributing editor. He explained that the publication’s original goal “was to create a hall of mirrors about compensation.” Thirty years ago, lawyers considered themselves a profession, not a trade, and they “looked down their noses” at compensation issues. But that all changed with the arrival of the American Lawyer and its Am Law 100 and 200 rankings. “[Lawyers] sucked this stuff up like pornography,” said Olin of the Am Law 100 rankings of firms (by such metrics as revenue and profit).
Olin contrasted the mission of an industry publication like the American Lawyer with the work of legal journalists who write for more mainstream publications. Bazelon picked up on this theme: “One of my primary functions is to be a translator. You translate legal concepts back into words that everyone can understand.”
Dan Slater described his story selection process at the WSJ Law Blog (a topic of special interest to us). He said he gets into work early and reads as much legal news as he can, trying to get that process done by eight o’clock or so. Then he tries to pick out about three stories to blog about in the morning. Some news days are slower than others (tell us about it). “Sometimes you have to scramble a bit,” said Slater.
He noted, as Lithwick did in her UVA talk, the rise of blogs by law professors. They can be a tremendous resource to legal reporters. “if you want to learn all about tax law, there are many choices. Not that you want to know about tax law. (Laughter.) Just kidding.”
(No offense, Paul Caron.)
Lehrer asked the panelists to identify a story this year that the legal media got wrong. Bazelon cited — correctly, in our view — the Los Angeles Times coverage of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. The Times failed to explain the grudge of their source (Cyrus Sanai) against Kozinski. The images in question were like “greeting card pornography”; they sounded so much more tawdry in print than they actually are.
Kozinski is “a man of large appetities,” observed Bazelon, with a robust sense of humor. If you know that about him, it’s hard to view what he had on his server as a serious problem.
The other panelists agreed. Olin echoed Bazelon’s assessment of Kozinski as “a hilarious guy in person.” Slater pointed out that the Times apparently had the story in the can for a while and picked a particularly bad time to run it, just as Kozinski was about to start presiding over an obscenity trial.
Olin expressed interest in stories that aren’t getting done at all. For example, in light of the current credit crunch and economic crisis, where are the Vinson & Elkins/Enron-type stories — stories about lawyers and law firms that may bear responsibility for this mess?
Slater quipped: “Most of those lawyers are now unemployed.” Laughter. Bazelon said that such stories may still emerge, since the economic crisis as a story is young.
Sad but true — the recession as a story is only just beginning. Look for things to get worse before they get better. And stay tuned to ATL for the latest news and rumors on how law firms are faring in the downturn.
Reporting the Law: A Year-End Review [New York Law School]