United States

UNITED STATES Free press developments since the IAPA meeting in Houston last October include: An investment firm that won a record $222.7 million libel award two years ago against the publisher of The Wall Street Journal said on December 21 that it had dropped the case because it could not afford to continue. The massive judgment for MMAR Group Inc. was reduced and eventually thrown out by a federal judge. MMAR attorney Kenneth Morris said the firm would have won a new trial but was giving up “solely because, after more than five years, MMAR now lacks the financial resources to continue the good fight against its wealthy adversary.” Paul E. Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, said MMAR had engaged in misconduct and did not deserve any money from his newspaper's parent company, Dow Jones & Co. The California Supreme Court said a journalist cannot be jailed for refusing to provide unused portions of an interview to the prosecution in a criminal case. The decision late last October was considered a victory for the state's shield law. The case involves Ellen Miller, who was news director at Sacramento television station KOVR when a trial judge ordered her jailed for contempt after the station refused to provide a prosecutor with outtakes from a jailhouse interview with Anthony Lee DeSoto. Miller had remained free while the case was appealed. A federal appeals court made it easier to obtain information the government does not want to release, ruling that otherwise-secret wiretap recordings played in open court must be surrendered under a freedom of information law. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled unanimously on October 26 that such recordings, if specifically identified in a Freedom of Information Act request, are subject to release as public records. The decision was a victory for Salvatore Cottone, convicted on drug and racketeering charges as the result of a federal investigation into Colombian and Sicilian connections to drug trafficking in the District of Columbia and its northern Virginia suburbs. Since 1992, Cottone has been seeking access to secretly taped conversations played at his trial as evidence against him. Thirty years’ worth of transcripts from hearings on “un-American" activities will be opened to the public for the first time since the early 1970s. Two California legislative committees investigated people suspected of having ties to communism from 1941 to 1971. But all records from those investigations were sealed when the legislative committees were disbanded. Transcripts from 66 public hearings held between 1941 and 1958 also were among those sealed documents until a state judge ordered the California Senate Rules Committee to make the transcripts public at the request of a researcher working on a project about how the investigation into communist ties affected those working in Hollywood. A judge who granted a subpoena to search a newspaper’s telephone records said its privacy was less important than a police department’s need to find a missing file on a homicide investigation. Judge Steven Caldemeyer approved a grand jury subpoena for the telephone records of The Star Press of Muncie on April 6 and 7. On those days, the newspaper received anonymous calls and a fax revealing the disappearance of a Muncie Police Department file on an unsolved homicide. Larry Lough, editor of The Star Press, accused the police department of going on a “fishing expedition, with the help of the prosecutor's office, to look for information about our sources.” At the time of the subpoena, the newspaper was investigating overtime practices in the police department. Caldemeyer said he believed the newspaper subpoena was sufficiently limited in scope, covering nine hours over April 6-7. A judge dismissed the libel suit of a former city chief medical examiner who said he was defamed by articles in The New York Times that quoted pathologists accusing him of faulty autopsy reports. In a pretrial ruling, Justice Elliott Wilk held that Dr. Elliot Gross had failed to show that the newspaper and reporter Philip Shenon, who wrote many of the stories in 1985 and 1986, had acted with “actual malice” or a “reckless disregard for the truth.” The state judge said the reporter interviewed more than 250 people and searched for sources who were friendly with or neutral toward Gross. John and Patsy Ramsey filed a $25 million lawsuit against the Star, alleging the supermarket tabloid libeled their son with stories calling him the prime suspect in the killing of his sister, JonBenet. The federal lawsuit said the stories, published on May 25 and June 1 but later retracted, were false and defamatory, and subjected 12-year-old Burke to “public hatred, contempt and ridicule.” Police in Fairfax, Virginia said they plan to start telling crime victims to contact them before talking to the media, an action believed to be unprecedented in the United States. Starting in January, victims and witnesses involved in high-profile crimes were to be given a business card telling them they don’t have to talk to reporters. Fairfax County police spokesman Warren Carmichael said the department began considering the card in October after a local TV reporter revealed the identity of a child who had been approached by a suspected child molester. At the time, the suspect was still at large. Carmichael says the reporter’s actions compromised the safety of the boy and his mother, who was interviewed for the story. Kyle E. Niederpruem, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said that victims or their relatives often want to talk to reporters and that Fairfax County was overreacting to one incident.