Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is this really one more thing reporters shouldn't do?

Posted By on 10.14.12 at 08:00 AM

Did the letters help?
  • Stacie Scott/Sun-Times Media
  • Did the letters help?
Eric Zorn wrote a column the other day that perplexed me. It confronted me. I wanted him not to be right but Zorn usually is, so I stopped trying to think it through. But a minute ago I was sweeping the kitchen with an empty mind and Zorn's argument blew back into it.

What he reported, on October 5, was that James Zagel, the federal judge in the William Cellini trial, said from the bench at sentencing that three "prominent journalists" had sent him letters supporting leniency.

"Who are these three?" Zorn wondered. "No one is saying, and their names are in a sealed file."

I wonder too. We all do. Zagel was lenient—Cellini got a year and a day behind bars—and Zorn observed that the good word from three people who enjoy "extra credibility" for being journalists could only have helped. He disapproved in language so strong I winced.

"We are observers, not players," Zorn wrote. "We don’t have skin in the game, or if we do, we’re quick to disclose it.

"It’s OK for us to write 100 thunderous columns about what a prince of a man Bill Cellini is despite his missteps and how he accordingly deserves extra mercy from the court (or 100 columns urging the book be thrown at him), but utterly wrong for us to write similar sentiments in one letter to a judge, particularly if we think the judge will recognize our names and give our views extra weight because we’re journalists."

He went on: "No true journalist of any prominence would lend his or her name to such a cause. The Cellini Three, whoever they are, should come clean, turn in their press passes and find another line of work."

We don't know what the letters said. We don't know if they argued that Cellini, the famous political fixer, is actually the most misunderstood man in Illinois and deserves a parade, not a prison term. But perhaps one of them held that Cellini did everything the prosecution said he did, and worse, but that there's another side to him that didn't come out in the trial and the judge ought to know about it. Possibly one prominent journalist told the judge, "I have damned this man a million times in print and he deserves to rot in hell. But there was the dark and stormy night decades ago when he stopped on the road and helped my sainted grandmother change a tire, and my conscience commands me to say so. I would say so in print but I have been reduced to blogging and no one reads my blog."

We don't know these things. Zorn doesn't know them. He makes an absolutist argument, but there must be a line he draws somewhere that these prominent journalists crossed, and that line must have something to do with Cellini's statewide notoriety. Would he tell the three journalists they should have written a column instead on what a prince William Cellini is if no one had ever heard of Cellini?

These aren't abstract questions to me. A few years ago I wrote a letter to a judge speaking well of a defendant in a criminal case that had received brief media attention. The defendant was no Cellini, but his arrest was a one-day story and it was a somewhat tawdry story painful to read. But I'd known him for years and had good reasons to think of him warmly and when the time came I wrote a note sharing those reasons with the judge.

I suppose I could have blown enough helium into that note to inflate it into a column. The idea didn't occur to me. A column is always, to one degree or another, about the columnist. It is always, to a degree, self-serving, in that if you're writing one column you don't have to write another, and it is always, to a degree, show-boating. Columnists do turns. The judge would have read the column uncertain of my agenda and might have wondered, if he sincerely just wants to help the guy, why didn't he just write to me?

I did sincerely just want to help the guy, and I did just write to the judge. My friend had what the letter called "personal qualities" to stand against the ones that got him in trouble, and I wanted the judge to know them. I have no idea if my standing as a Reader columnist, which I mentioned, influenced him at all. My friend wound up getting probation.

I didn't give the matter another thought until I read Zorn's column, and then I asked myself if I'd done something seriously wrong, something that should make me turn in my press pass. I don't think so. Without being facetious, I think it's worth mentioning that journalists don't have press passes. Review boards don't look into charges and suspend us. Our credentials are our consciences, and Zorn gave mine a jolt, but it's recovering.

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