Downplaying a Scoop from the Heartland
By Duane Bradford
Duane Bradford is a freelance journalist based in Florida.
On two days last March, readers of Minneapolis' Star Tribune picked up their paper to find several pages devoted to stories about a local company picking up an expensive travel tab for federal judges – including U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Star Tribune Washington correspondents Tom Hamburger and Sharon Schmickle spent four months preparing the series, which raised questions about the propriety of federal judges accepting gifts.
They found that West Publishing Co., which publishes the opinions of the judges and justices, provides the money for the Devitt Award, a $15,000 cash prize awarded annually to a federal jurist deemed exceptional. The winner is chosen by a selection committee that since 1983 has included seven U.S. Supreme Court justices. The committee travels first class – sometimes with spouses – at West's expense to resorts in locales such as Palm Springs and the Virgin Islands, where they pick the winner.
The Star Tribune series was exhaustive and balanced. It showed a gift-giving relationship between a private corporation and federal judges, the kind of cozy connection that can cost government employees their jobs.
It was big news in the Twin Cities – but virtually nowhere else.
While Baltimore's Sun pursued the story and ran its own report on the situation, it was a rare exception – few other news organizations did so. Many newspapers settled for wire service stories inside their front sections. The New York Times carried nothing.
Editorial commentary on the potential conflict of interest also was almost nonexistent. Twelve weeks after the series broke, a database search found that only a handful of newspapers besides the Star Tribune editorialized on the subject: the Houston Post, the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Arizona Republic and the Chicago Defender.
Of the networks, only NBC mentioned the story, in a 20-second spot by Giselle Fernandez at the end of the evening news.
Why the news blackout on a rare story about questionable conduct by Supreme Court justices?
Some say it's simply the latest manifestation of an age-old phenomenon. If a story is broken by one of the national heavyweights like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or "60 Minutes," everyone else picks it up. If a story is broken by a paper in the hinterlands, forget about it.
"If you were able to put editors under deep hypnosis, you would probably find that it is the old thing of who published the story – and if one of the big four or five didn't do it, it probably isn't a story," says Martin Dyckman, an associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Dyckman's reporting years ago on the questionable conduct of some Florida Supreme Court judges ultimately helped lead to their premature departure from the bench.
James D. Atwater, former dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, says the low national profile of the Star Tribune series is "due more to a traditional weakness of the American press" than to questions about the stories themselves. Atwater, a onetime senior editor at Time magazine, says there's a long history of editors "overlooking solid work by papers in other parts of the country."
Schmickle and Hamburger say their initial approach to the story was that of regional reporters interested in a hometown company. A West-sponsored breakfast at the National Press Club, along with a newspaper advertisement touting the publishing company's lobbying efforts, sharpened their attention, and they began asking the questions that turned the story into a national scoop.
"It's not every day that a Minnesota company hits Washington with that kind of splash," Schmickle says.
The Star Tribune's efforts were not ignored entirely. For example, on March 6 Los Angeles Times readers found a 400-word Reuters story about the series on page A11. The Washington Post ran the wire story inside its front section, but added nothing to the coverage. The Wall Street Journal similarly noted the event.
The Tallahassee Democrat was one of the few papers to give the wire pickup of the series page one play, while the Atlanta Journal and Constitution carried a 130-word version inside the paper that included more on the publishing company's response than on the revelations themselves. Like the New York Times, the St. Petersburg Times didn't run anything.
New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse says she thought that the complexity of the story would require her to spend far more time than her daily court responsibilities would permit. "So," she says, "I basically decided to take a pass on it."
Greenhouse says she was offended by implications in the Star Tribune stories that the justices were somehow helping West because of the free trips they received. "It strikes me as flat out wrong and very unfair," she says.
New York Times Assistant Managing Editor David Jones declined to comment on why the Times chose not to mention the story.
Newly appointed St. Petersburg Times Managing Editor Neil Brown says he isn't certain why his paper missed the story. He suggests that newspapers should consider prepublication promotions to help their chances of getting attention.
But Baltimore's Sun took an interest in the story without the help of a press release. After the Star Tribune published its series, the Sun weighed in with a long report by Lyle Denniston, the paper's veteran Supreme Court reporter (and a former AJR columnist). Denniston says he and his newspaper's "upper management" concluded that the idea of justices traveling at the expense of a private corporation that did business with the courts posed ethical problems.
Ron Meador, the Star Tribune assistant managing editor who directed the project, is philosophical about the response to the paper's investigative efforts.
"Obviously," says Meador, "we thought and still think it is an excellent story."