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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

A Go-between Guy   


By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     

Larry D. Hatfield is an old hand on the radical beat. At the San Francisco Examiner, Hatfield covered the Symbionese Liberation Army before it made world headlines in February 1974 by kidnapping his boss' daughter, Patricia Hearst.

Over the years, Hatfield would get to know the families of members and associates of the militant, left-wing group--including relatives of Kathleen Soliah, wanted by police for the attempted bombing of two Los Angeles police cars and the bombing of two Hearst estates. Not surprisingly, Hatfield, now the paper's chief rewrite man, pitched the idea to write a 25th anniversary story of the May 1974 shootout in Los Angeles that killed six SLA "soldiers."

What he didn't expect was to become part of the story.

During a May 13 interview, Hatfield says, he was asked by one of Soliah's relatives to tell the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI that the family "might be interested in talking about some sort of deal" for Kathleen Soliah's surrender.

"I was uncomfortable even at being asked, and that's why I immediately told the person that if I did it, I was going to write about it," Hatfield says. He expected to be criticized if he took on the go-between role. "But I thought then and still do that as long as both sides knew that we were treating it as a news story," no ethical problem existed.

He told his bosses, including Executive Editor Phil Bronstein, of the family's request. They agreed it was OK to proceed "as long as we wrote about it and did nothing more than pass the messages back and forth," Hatfield says.

Metro Editor Dick Rogers says he trusted Hatfield to serve only as a conduit. "He is a skeptical, skeptical person; he's skeptical to a fault. From my many years of working with Larry, [I know] he would not be comfortable taking somebody's part."

Hatfield spent five days relaying telephone messages between Soliah's sympathizers and police, writing a story on police efforts to find her during this period. Then the "LAPD decided they wanted to talk directly to Kathy," Hatfield says. "That's where everything broke off... Her side thought that was just a way of pinpointing her location."

On May 15, the TV program "America's Most Wanted" broadcast pictures of Soliah and another SLA fugitive, bringing renewed attention to the case. A month later, Soliah, now known as Sara Jane Olson, was arrested near her home in St. Paul.

Hatfield became a momentary media star because of his inside contacts. "I literally had dozens of phone calls from people" seeking information, he says.

But what of his role as intermediary? "It sounds like he did an awful lot of good things: He informed his bosses about this conflict early on [and] he set up some clear guidelines," says Lee Wilkins, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Missouri.

William F. Woo, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees. But he wishes the Examiner had printed more details about how Hatfield was approached, how he responded and what transpired.

Woo further wonders if the paper considered having another person write the Soliah stories. "Whether he ought to do the shuttling and the writing, in which the reader is entitled to assume that there are no agendas other than to tell the story as fully and accurately as possible," is a question that should have been asked, Woo says.

Deputy Managing Editor Stephen Cook says internal discussions "did not include Larry not being the reporter on the story." Rather, they focused on him reporting the story fully.

Hatfield wrote at least five stories that indirectly mentioned his activities. He did not identify himself as the intermediary, writing "an Examiner reporter" instead. The first piece ran May 16, while he was still relaying messages. He says he thought it would have looked silly to put his name in the story when his byline was on top, and he didn't write "this reporter" because "I always thought that looked pose-y."

After Soliah's arrest, the paper "offered Larry an opportunity to do a first-person in which he [would provide] detailed conversations that weren't specifically part of the story," Rogers says. But Hatfield says he "wasn't really very comfortable with that." He offered to be interviewed by another reporter, but Rogers declined.

Rogers doesn't see any breach of ethics. "If we were placed in this situation again where somebody was reporting a story and was asked by one side to communicate something to the other, in a neutral fashion, I would never discourage [that]."

He adds he is "really glad and really proud that we have a reporter with enough entrée that he can get people on both sides [of this story] to talk to him."

Although neither Hatfield nor Rogers can remember a similar situation arising at the Examiner, author and veteran crime reporter David J. Krajicek says they arise "absolutely all the time," especially at tabloids. "There's a long tradition of crime suspects turning themselves in to newspapers rather than police."

That certainly was the case for Chuck Stone, who had 75 murder suspects turn themselves in to him when he was a Philadelphia Daily News columnist.

Says Stone, now a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: "There are these lines you draw... If [Hatfield is] a go-between, I don't see anything wrong with that. Plus, it's an exclusive."