A Plague of Lawyers

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“The Heroic Media Attorney: An Endangered Species” by Willy Stern, in AAN News (Feb. 11, 2003), Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, www.aan.org.

Lawyers, lawyers, lawyers. Everywhere investigative reporters turn these days, there seems to be an attorney. As a result, the media watchdog has lost some of its bite, says Stern, an investigative reporter for the Nashville Scene who teaches at Vanderbilt University.

Investigative reporters, who may spend months on a single story, are a tiny fraction of working journalists. As corporate ownership has supplanted family ownership in recent decades, many newspapers have become “far more reluctant to undertake lengthy, expensive, and high-profile investigative reporting projects,” Stern notes. Such efforts may win journalism awards, but they also generate angry which are anathema to publishers intent on maximizing profits and pleasing shareholders.

The libel lawyers employed by family-run newspapers to vet investigative stories typically had “a bias to publish” and would work with journalists to get the hard-hitting exposés out. Corporate media attorneys today typically prefer to play it safe. Increasingly, “the lawyers, and not the editors, are calling the shots,” says Joel Kaplan, a former investigative reporter at The Chicago Tribune who teaches at Syracuse University.

At many newspapers and television stations, Stern says, investigative teams have been replaced by “project teams,” which turn out exhaustive but safe features, with no “bad guys” exposed. Some investigative efforts avoid risk by eschewing anonymous sources and relying upon computer-assisted reporting to reveal disturbing trends or problems. This can be valuable, but it is not investigative reporting, at least in the eyes of traditionalists.

When newspapers or TV stations do undertake traditional investigative reporting, news media attorneys increasingly get involved early on, advising reporters, for example, whether they can go undercover or secretly record conversations. This can be helpful, but it reduces the reporters’ prized independence.

When investigative reporters approach, many people now “lawyer up” quickly. “As a result,” Stern says, “instead of interviewing people, many investigative reporters spend hours upon hours preparing questions, which are faxed to attorneys . . . [who] then send back carefully worded responses.” That’s not much fun, and it’s another significant restraint on the media watchdog.

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