The Case for Shredding
First Amendment groupies are passing stones over a judicial order that a reporter surrender his notes.
This startling news is made even juicier by the fact that some of the people who are demanding to see the notes are reporters themselves.
If you're guessing that any case this convoluted must involve the Millennial Arizona Republic, your postulations are prescient.
A Washington state judge on March 22 ordered University of Washington communications professor and freelance journalist Doug Underwood to turn over his work product or face jail time.
A little background: Underwood, who often writes about media ethics, authored a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review in January 1998 that explored the increasing influence that business and advertising interests have on news coverage. One of the 60 reporters who had been fired in 1997 by the Republic and (now defunct) Phoenix Gazette told Underwood that those who had been cashiered had stood up to management and tried to aggressively cover people and institutions that their bosses held sacred.
In response, then Republic managing editor Steve Knickmeyer told Underwood that those who had been fired were "fat, lazy, incompetent, and slow."
Eighteen of those reporters sued the Republic and Knickmeyer for defamation. As part of that ongoing litigation, the reporters' lawyer demanded Underwood's notes and story drafts. A King County, Washington, Superior Court judge says they can.
Underwood is not named in the lawsuit. Knickmeyer was fired by the Republic shortly after Underwood's story appeared. (Republic executive editor Pam Johnson reacted to the story with a memo stating: "Steve made a remark in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review that did not accurately reflect the selection process used last year when we closed The Phoenix Gazette and had to let 60 staff members go. The Republic disavows the statement he made in the article.")
Several of the plaintiffs are no longer in journalism. But most of them are. Most of them didn't return calls. And ones who did -- irony of ironies -- wouldn't comment on the prospect of reporters forcing a fellow member of the Fourth Estate to open his notebook.
"I'm not gonna go there," says Kim Sue Lia Perkes, now a reporter for the Austin American Statesman.
"I guess I'm going to have to refer you to the attorneys on that one," says Guy Webster, who now writes for the East Valley Tribune. "We're sort of under lawyer's request not to talk."
Bruce Johnson, a Seattle media attorney who represents Underwood, is aghast at the developments.
"You have these reporters seemingly bent on attacking First Amendment rights of reporters generally," Johnson says. ". . . I can't imagine they're likely to be popular among other journalists."
Amy Gittler, who represents the fired reporters (at least four of the original 18 have dropped out of the litigation), says the Washington judge's order only applies to the portion of Underwood's notes relating to his interview with Knickmeyer.
Asked about the propriety of reporters demanding another reporter's notes, Gittler skirts the question: "I am absolutely offended by the notion that journalists don't have legal rights and journalists can be defamed."
One plaintiff who spoke on condition of anonymity is uncomfortable with the legal maneuver, but explains that many of the plaintiffs are not altogether privy to their lawyers' machinations. The source says two plaintiffs have been designated to act as liaisons between the legal team and the plaintiffs.
The Washington judge gave Underwood until Friday to turn over his notes, file an appeal or, perhaps, go to jail. His attorney says no decision on an appeal has been made.
The Flash can't imagine there's anything of value in Underwood's notebook. He surely used Knickmeyer's most inflammatory comments.
But, hey, turncoat tactics notwithstanding, the Flash still hopes these former reporters get a bundle.
Hit or Premise
E.J. Montini could use a civics lesson.
In his March 22 column, the Republic scribe made the case that John McCain secretly wants George W. Bush to lose the presidential election because a Bush win would deprive Humble John of a chance at the Republican nomination in four years.
In doing so, Montini makes a big deal out of how this situation mirrors the Ronald Reagan-Gerald Ford race in 1976. He devotes three paragraphs to the argument that Reagan must have wanted Ford to lose to Jimmy Carter in '76, because otherwise Ford "would have locked up the nomination again in 1980." Ford lost, and Reagan returned to whip Carter in 1980.
The glaring error in Montini's logic is that the 22nd Amendment prohibits anyone who inherits more than two years of another president's term (Ford inherited two and a half years of Richard Nixon's) from being elected more than once. So, if Ford had won in '76, he only could have served one term.
Furthermore, everyone knows full well that McCain wants Dubya to lose because he thinks he's a punk.
Top Doc Crock
It's back, the much-trumpeted "Top Doctors" issue of Phoenix Magazine.
Touted as its most popular annual issue and distributed at special racks (the Flash stumbled across one near a pharmacy pick-up window), the magazine lists 250 "top" physicians in 20 specialties. Despite PM's perennial disclaimers -- don't rely solely on our recommendations, check with other sources, don't blame us if you don't agree -- even the Flash expects the list to have some credibility.
Not so. Read the fine print. After tenuous methodologies in years past -- polling other docs or local nurses, reprinting a local version of a reputable national best docs list -- Phoenix Mag has sunk to a new low.
The group of recommended family practice physicians is taken from the same national ranking organization the magazine has used before. No problem there.
But the rest. The editors at PM would have us believe that Phoenix's "top" docs are those who had the greatest number of patients discharged from local hospitals in 1998.
"This seemed like an objective way to rank the doctors most patients are choosing," the article states.
Well, hey, why didn't they just go out and count the number of cars parked in the lots of medical offices?
This bizarre, quantity-equals-quality reasoning might work for assembly-line workers, but for doctors?
But the criteria does help explain a few things, such as: why some of the usual top docs are conspicuously absent (perhaps their good care actually keeps their patients OUT of the hospital), why a Veterans Administration hospital doc was a shoo-in, and why a few of PM's "Top Doc" picks that were randomly checked out by the Flash had questionable records with the Arizona State Board of Medical Examiners.
Shaky research is what we've come to expect of late from Phoenix Magazine, the same folks who brought you the special but flawed "Top Schools" (some on the list were closed) and "Top Lawyers" (Janet Napolitano was listed as a private lawyer) issues in the past year.
And while the Flash is sniping at Phoenix Magazine, what's up with the editor's photo? While the Republic is now taking the shrink-and-chop-at-the-forehead approach to its in-house mug shots, PM word czar Robert Stieve's new-each-month photo keeps growing exponentially. This month's looks like a Glamour Shot, or something that should be accompanied by a list of his favorite things: long walks on the beach, valet parking, posing for portraits . . .
Hey, Bob. Nice hair. Nice watch. You studly.
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