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'Rashomon' goes to court

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'RASHOMON' GOES TO COURT

When news organizations cover their own involvement in public-records litigation, it can end up a little like the old "Far Side" panel in which space creatures have captured astronauts in a jar, and one says, "Shake it up and see if we can make them fight."

A case in point: the Jan. 12 split decision in the case of requests by KGUN Channel 9 and the Arizona Daily Star for internal documents regarding County Attorney Barbara LaWall's investigation of four prosecutors. LaWall fired one prosecutor and suspended three others in connection with the investigation into the murder of Tucson physician David Brian Stidham.

After the media requests came in, LaWall asked for declaratory judgment in Pima County Superior Court--pre-empting a public-records lawsuit over the documents. The request is a pretty hairy one, because personnel policies usually favor the employee's privacy; the disciplined prosecutors might have had grounds to sue had LaWall released them of her own volition.

Superior Court Judge Michael Alfred ruled Jan. 12 that some 60 pages--only the disciplined prosecutors' notices of administrative leave with pay, suspension and dismissal--could be released. The media wanted more--investigative transcripts, e-mails sent back and forth between the prosecutors and interoffice memoranda in the matter--but Alfred said no.

"The e-mails are purely personal in nature and some interviews involved people against whom no personnel actions or other accusations of wrongdoing are lodged," he wrote.

Looking at the approaches to the story, it's intriguing to note that nobody shared Alfred's reasons for his decision with the public last week. The "why" of something is one of the basic questions news stories are supposed to answer.

Alfred's reasoning is important because it tells KGUN and the Star what grounds may exist for appeal, and whether their chances of prevailing are worth the additional financial commitment. News organizations are like everybody else--they have to pick their fights.

It's also interesting to note the different approaches various local media took to the story.

The Star, KGUN and the Tucson Citizen told their audiences that the documents were released as the result of a court order. But the Citizen, KOLD Channel 13 and KVOA Channel 4 didn't give credit where it was due. Although they did stories on information in the released documents, there was no mention that KGUN and the Star carried everyone's water in the first place.

The Star's Jan. 13 story didn't say a lot about the content of the documents, but did an effective job of explaining why they went to the mat. All too often, news organizations brandish "the public's right to know" without explaining what they were looking for and why the public needed to know.

The problem with the Star story is that it wasn't balanced; balance comes hard when your news organization is a named character in the story. The headline and the deck ("LaWall wins document ruling/Media denied access in prosecutors probe") are misleading in that they led a reader to believe that Alfred sealed everything. Contributing to the problem is the story's structure. It wasn't until the 17th paragraph, back on page B8, that the Star reported Alfred did release some documents.

If you follow the newsroom adage that readers seldom "follow the jump" (read to the end of a story that starts on one page and finishes on another), then most readers didn't know that Alfred acceded somewhat to the media's requests. It's possible the copy editor who wrote the headline didn't follow the jump either, but the fact that Alfred released some documents (even though the Star had most of them already) should have been close to the top of the story. To leave it where it was gives a sense of sour grapes, which is better played out on the editorial page.

The Citizen story had one factual error. The story says Alfred didn't order the release of documents relating to former prosecutor Janet Altschuler, who resigned last month. He did. Her notice of administrative leave with pay was to be released immediately. But her notice of intent to dismiss and notice of suspension should be held back until her private appeal to the Pima County Merit Commission is finished. And under county policy, employees have a right of privacy in merit service proceedings.


VICTIM OF BURNOUT

A burned-out capacitor shut down KUAZ-FM (89.1 MHz) for about 10 hours Friday. The equipment failure didn't affect its simulcast on KUAZ-AM (1550 kHz), which begins its broadcasting day at sunrise.


PTZ ON THE STREET

Pulitzer Inc., owner of the Arizona Daily Star, declared a fourth-quarter dividend of 20 cents per share, payable Feb. 1 to shareholders of record Jan. 21. Pulitzer has increased its quarterly dividend yearly since the company went public in 1986.

And it looks like the Jan. 21 distribution date may mean investors still have time to load up on PTZ (the company's ticker symbol). Chairman Michael E. Pulitzer sold another 3,000 shares last week, raising $188,880, and withdrew another 11,000 shares from the voting trust, raising his direct holding to 13,500 shares. He's sold 6,000 shares so far in January.

If you're keeping score, Mike sold 201,900 shares under his direct control in 2004 and raised more than $10.4 million. About 22 percent of that--a little more than $2.3 million--came from 14 sales (1,500 shares each) since the company's Nov. 22 announcement that it was weighing its "strategic options."

Those numbers don't include selling out his personal trust's holdings in PTZ for $4.3 million, and the $1.06 million raised when the Michael E. and Ceil Pulitzer Foundation sold its PTZ position.

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