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With e-mails, TV stations didn't hesitate

Two outlets quickly gave the judge information they received, becoming part of the story they were covering.

By ERIC DEGGANS Times Television Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 1999

According to executives at Bay News 9, the cable news channel, and WTSP-Ch. 10, it was a no-brainer.

Upon learning someone had sent them e-mails claiming a juror in the racketeering case against the Rev. Henry J. Lyons had spoken about the deliberations to a friend, violating court rules, they decided quickly. They gave the messages to the court.

Officials at both TV stations said they had no qualms about handing over the e-mails to authorities, a development that prompted calls for a mistrial from the defense and made the stations part of the story they were covering.

"You cannot ignore something like that. . . . We had no choice," said Elliott Wiser, vice president at Bay News 9, who said he didn't consult an attorney before sending reporter Chris O'Connell to the courthouse Saturday with a copy of the first of two messages received. "I think we acted responsibly."

Kevin Brennan, vice president of news at WTSP, added, "It's as if someone slipped a note underneath our door . . . just quicker. I'm not concerned about turning it over."

Both stations said they received the first e-mail carrying the name "Maxwell Williams" Friday night. After seeing the message Saturday morning, Bay News 9's O'Connell said, he hurried to the courthouse, handing the message to the first member of the legal team he encountered: a clerk for Jay Hebert, an attorney for Lyons. WTSP gave its message to the court a few hours later.

At noon, the cable news channel received a second e-mail, clarifying that the sender "only overheard a stranger in a store" discussing the juror's alleged remarks. O'Connell speculated the author may have been watching Bay News 9's coverage before sending the second message.

"It was a little uncomfortable for me . . . becoming part of the news," the reporter said. "But I thought I had an ethical responsibility to get it into the court's hands."

Bob Steele, director of ethics programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, a non-profit journalism center that owns the St. Petersburg Times, said the TV stations should have consulted with attorneys and considered the precedent set by turning over documents without a court order or search warrant from authorities.

"If this is legitimate information the public needs to know, perhaps you broadcast a story that reveals the substance of the e-mail," Steele said. "The duty of the journalist is to the public, not to the defendant and not to the judicial process."

But Wiser, who noted Bay News 9 didn't broadcast news of the first e-mail until the judge had a chance to read it, resisted Steele's interpretation.

"Doing a story first . . . that's what you'd expect Hard Copy to do," he said. "If this happened to a citizen, they'd be expected to come forward, and we're no different."

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