The Story of Us

Often, the worst characters possess the best information

There's a subpoena on my desk.

I'm not named in it, but one of my colleagues, James Hibberd, is. He's the journalist who interviewed the Mountain Preserves arsonist, then wrote a story about it. [read the story]

Hibberd met the arsonist because he and his editors believed the guy might say something of value. His story would provide a glimpse inside the arsonist's psyche. It might even help authorities catch the people who are burning homes being built adjacent to the Mountain Preserves.

Lots of people were upset by Hibberd's January 25 story in New Times. Investigators were angry that we didn't deliver the arsonist to them in irons. Citizens who don't understand the difference between the media and the police were angry that we didn't turn the arsonist over to the authorities. Some purported journalists agreed with them.

Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley was choleric, too. On January 26, he slapped Hibberd with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury. But Hibberd isn't to show up empty-handed.

Romley demanded that Hibberd bring with him "any and all notes, recordings, videos, caller ID, e-mail, letters, correspondence, web page records, web site records, telephone records, electronic data processing and storage devices, computers and computer systems including central processing units; internal and peripheral storage devices such as fixed disks, external hard disks, floppy disk drives and diskettes, tape drives and tapes, optical storage devices or other memory storage devices; peripheral input/output devices such as keyboards, printers, video display monitors, optical readers, and related communications devices such as modems; together with system documentation, operating logs and documentation, software and instruction manuals; all of the above records, whether stored on paper, on magnetic media, such as tape, cassette, disk, diskette or on memory storage devices such as optical disks, programmable instruments such as telephones, 'electronic address books,' calculators, or any other storage media, together with indicia of use, ownership, possession, or control of such records; and any other written documents pertaining to conversations with the alleged arsonist. This includes all requested documents and materials that may have been or have been deleted, shredded, erased or otherwise destroyed."

Apparently, the county attorney expects Hibberd to drive up in a Ryder truck.

Romley may contend that I am breaking the law by telling the populace of the prosecutor's plot to plunder the premises. But the subpoena sits here in front of me. There's no denying that. So I'll do my job, tell you about it and take my chances with the judge.

Of course, New Times will resist this wanton state intrusion.

The authors of the Constitution recognized that a free and independent press was essential to an open democratic society. They gave us the First Amendment. Lawmakers and courts have interpreted and defined applications of the First Amendment.

They have granted journalists special privileges. Perhaps the most important one is the right to protect our sources of information. The powers that be deemed that the advantage of knowing the truth about what's going on in our society is more important than knowing exactly who's got firsthand knowledge.

Romley has cast his broad net in the face of a sweeping statute that exempts journalists from disclosing their sources. The Arizona "Shield Law" states, "A person engaged in newspaper, radio, television or reportorial work . . . shall not be compelled to testify or disclose in a legal proceeding or trial or any proceeding whatever, or before any jury, inquisitorial body or commission, or before a committee of the legislature, or elsewhere, the source of information obtained by him for publication . . ."

If they have any fondness for freedom, other journalists will join us in resisting Romley's fishing expedition.

Unfortunately, the behavior of much of Arizona's media has not served the cause of journalism. Many hastened to brand our arson story unethical and irresponsible.

Hell hath no fury like a reporter scooped.

I have nothing against cops, but I am not one of them.

Neither is James Hibberd. My fellow reporters, editors and photographers at New Times are not cops. Neither are the reporters at the city's daily newspapers or TV and radio stations, though some are confused on this point.

We're journalists, and our job is to gather information and disseminate facts. To do this well, we must be willing to talk to anyone about anything. To dismiss a segment of the population -- including criminal suspects -- is to disserve the citizens who rely on us to keep them informed. Often, the worst characters have the best information.

There has indeed been some irresponsible journalism practiced hereabouts -- by so-called journalists who embrace expedience over principle. These reactionaries bend to the prevailing breezes of popular sentiment, to the detriment of their profession.

The Arizona Republic, the largest newspaper in the state, responded to our arson story with a Page One hit piece that questioned New Times' journalistic ethics.

The Republic ignored the salient issue -- terrorists among us -- and focused instead on the messenger.

Three of the newspaper's news columnists -- E.J. Montini, David Leibowitz and Richard Ruelas -- denounced us for bringing you this news.

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