Protests fill the streets around my office in Atlanta where I am a practicing criminal defense attorney who handles mostly federal cases. While protestors are raising a much larger issue, I have my own protest: the loss of objective journalism in federal criminal cases when “reporters” merely parrot back whatever “press release” is issued by some prosecutor’s media person.
We all know the drill. A federal criminal case is announced after a person is arrested or charges are issued by a grand jury or a criminal complaint is filed. Then, the multi-page press release is issued. The public gets this “news” when a media outlet or a reporter for a more standard publication writes a story about the new case. However, here is where things have changed so drastically over the years.
When I began three and a half decades ago, reporters ALWAYS called the defense attorney for a comment or reaction to the initial story. This was ingrained into all journalists, the need to strive for “objectivity”, and the realization that there are always two sides to every story. Sometimes it made sense to comment, many times the better course was to clam up and let the case work itself through the court system. I remember one case where an egotistic young Public Defender (OK, it was me) told the assembled group of reporters, “We’ll do our talking in court, unlike the prosecutors.” We got our butts kicked anyway.
Nowadays, things seem so different. Every federal prosecutor’s office now has a professional media person who regularly issues press releases. The first paragraph announces the case and charges, and then there are 3-4 paragraphs where the media flacks for the various agencies like the FBI and DEA spout off about how great their investigators are and how bad the accused person is. Then, buried down in the 5th or 6th paragraph is a one-liner where the prosecutor needs to try and adhere to ethical rules by noting something like: “Criminal indictments contain only charges; defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.” Somehow, this line never makes its way into the subsequent media stories.
Reporters gobble this stuff up like candy. Their story is written for them, so all they need to do is re-work a few words and phrases to avoid charges of plagiarism and Voila! A full-blown piece of “journalism.” What is missing? Any comment from the Defendant’s representative! No one calls the defense lawyer any more. The public only wants to hear about the charges, and no one bothers to mention that charges are just the beginning of the case, not the automatic end of the story.
I have a client who got charged recently amid a media blossom of attention when the press release announced she had been arrested for selling “illegal products claiming to protect against viruses.” The media all jumped on the story. No story had any comment discussing the accused person’s side of the case. Her family retained me, and I discovered that my client had lots of information that people regularly use this product in Japan. More astonishing, was the photo in her phone (seized by the Feds) of her little 7-year old son looking so cute in his Cub Scout uniform, WEARING THE SAME PRODUCT! In other words, she thought it was legal and that it would protect her family, otherwise why would she use it on her son?
We worked out a deal, because the sale of unregistered products is a crime, even if the seller does not know it is illegal. We also convinced the prosecutors to drop felony charges and allow the Defendant to plead to a misdemeanor and pay a $659 fine. The press release was issued within hours of her guilty plea. No mention of people in Japan using the same product. No discussion of how the law does not require a “guilty mind” in this kind of case. No mention of the little Cub Scout wearing the product his loving mother thought might protect him from coronavirus. The national news stories merely repeated what the federal press release said.
Fortunately, I know some of the experienced local reporters. I was able to get connected the the reporter handling the story. I felt it was only fair that the public know my client’s side while she was being publicly ridiculed and ostracized. And, that reporter did was good reporters always do, he wrote a piece that mentioned some of the details we included.
Like many areas, journalism has changed significantly. I wish that reporters would go back to times when they always tried to get both sides of a story and did not simply reply on press releases issued by the government.