A Reporter's Tale: When Doing the Job Could Mean Jail  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 1998

A Reporter's Tale: When Doing the Job Could Mean Jail   

North Carolina reporter Kirsten Mitchell is found in contempt of court for looking at a sealed document mistakenly placed in a public court file.

By Bridget Gutierrez
Bridget Gutierrez is a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.     


North Carolina reporter Kirsten Mitchell is found in contempt of court for looking at a sealed document mistakenly placed in a public court file.

Reporter Kirsten B. Mitchell was covering the North Carolina statehouse one day in late May when a senator passed her a note. Her name was printed on the front with what purported to be a prison number underneath. Inside the note read, "How's parole?"

"I'm known for my sense of humor, so I can take it," Mitchell, 32, says of the practical joke. "It's not funny anymore," she adds, "but I just roll with it."

?itchell, Raleigh bureau chief for North Carolina's Wilmington Morning Star and two other New York Times Co.-owned newspapers in the state, is a convicted criminal. And although she's not on parole, Mitchell is in a state of limbo — waiting for her appeal to be heard in a Richmond, Virginia, federal appeals court this fall. The senator's jest is merely one of many she's received during a stressful court battle brought about by simply doing her job.

Last year, Mitchell made headlines when a federal court judge in Raleigh found her in criminal contempt for looking at a sealed document mistakenly placed in a public court file (see The Press and the Law, May). The document revealed information about a secret court settlement between Wrightsboro trailer park residents and Conoco Oil Co. It confirmed the $36 million settlement figure fellow reporter Cory Reiss had obtained from other sources.

Even though it was Reiss' story that revealed the secret amount, Judge W. Earl Britt singled out Mitchell. "I really think he saw my actions as an affront to his court," she says.

The night of her conviction, Mitchell called her mother to say she felt OK even though she faced a possible six-month jail term and a $5,000 fine. Her mother reminded her of something Garrison Keillor once said: "For a writer, there is no such thing as a bad experience."

"I really took that to heart," says Mitchell, who told herself, "If I go to jail, I will have a story."

Although spared jail time (she was fined $1,000), Mitchell still has a story to tell — a story about the human toll of facing criminal prosecution, unwanted public attention, prying probation officers and pushy lawyers.

Back in December, while awaiting sentencing, Mitchell tried to set it all aside and focus on reporting. "It wasn't that simple," she says. "Nearly everyone I interviewed made a few comments on the case... I couldn't even walk down the street without someone stopping me."

"She didn't miss a beat in her coverage. She handled herself real well with all the hullabaloo in Raleigh," says Charles Anderson, the Morning Star's executive editor. "I think she was surprised to find herself a part of it. You don't set out to be a poster child for the First Amendment."

Neither did the Morning Star. Judge Britt also found the paper and Mitchell jointly liable for civil contempt and fined them $500,000 plus legal fees of almost $100,000.

"I would like to think this case is an aberration," says New York Times Co. Assistant General Counsel George Freeman. "The government has to keep its secrets, but if it fails in doing so, the press is not responsible for covering it up."

Mitchell could keep little personal information to herself: A senior U.S. probation officer requested various financial information, obtained transcripts from all the schools Mitchell ever attended, interviewed her mother and visited Mitchell in her home, asking questions like, "Are you sure you had a happy childhood?"

While Mitchell felt this was "somewhat an invasion of privacy," she says, "I fully understood that this was a court of law..and I shouldn't be treated differently from anyone else."

Throughout the ordeal Mitchell not only battled the court but also her own lawyers, who pressed her to ask a few "political heavyweights" — the governor and Senate president, among others — to serve as character witnesses. For Mitchell, this was out of the question. "Doing so would compromise my reporting," she says.

In March, when she shared her experience with some journalism students at Duke University, one young woman asked, "Have you ever thought of going into a less dangerous profession?"

"It was interesting that she perceived it as dangerous," Mitchell says, "because it isn't. It wasn't like I had cancer or lost my husband. If you put it in perspective, it's not that traumatic."

But it's true that the events changed her, she says. "It feels good in a way, having stood up to a federal judge and standing up for the First Amendment."

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