Thursday, September 3, 2009

Musings: New Journalism

Yesterday I got to be a part of the “new journalism” in action.

Turns out I was the only reporter present at a court hearing on Kauai that tested the state’s new media shield law. Attorneys for Joe Brescia, who is suing folks who opposed the house he’s building atop burials at Naue, had subpoenaed the videos and other materials compiled by independent filmmaker Keoni Kealoha Alvarez in the course of making a documentary for PBS on Hawaiian burial practices. They also wanted him to undergo a deposition, where he would have been asked questions about his news gathering and personal observations.

Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Watanabe granted the protective order sought by Alvarez’s attorneys, Jim Bickerton and the ACLU’s Dan Gluck, prompting Bickerton to say:

“It’s a good day for journalists. [The shield law] will give journalists the ability to dig deeper into their subject and that benefits society as a whole. It creates a chilling effect on journalists if they think they will be dragged into a lawsuit.

I went home and wrote it up and within two hours of the ruling, it was published in The Hawaii Independent, an aptly-named web-based local media source.

In the process, we scooped every other media outlet in the state. Hawaii Independent publisher Ikaika Hussey has hired folks to cover their neighborhoods and islands, with the idea that they’ll be able to provide some timely and/or in-depth coverage of issues that the MSM, with its incredibly shrinking staff and readership, are increasingly missing.

It’s a cool project, and as the Kauai contributor, I’m excited to be a part of it. I plan to publish some stories that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day, and the site has a number of interesting posts contributed by others. Just remember that only the intro to each story is visible on the site, so you’ll need to click on the headline to get the full article.

Reporters love getting scoops, so I shared the news with a few colleagues, including in Ian Lind and Larry Geller. Larry offered his congrats and this observation:

To me, that the you were the only journalist covering it is more significant than the scoop. Where were the rest of them?

I wondered that myself, and mentioned to Bickerton that I would have thought more journalists would be interested in an issue that directly affects them. He replied that he didn’t think reporters were interested in much of anything these days, save for whether their news organization would still be open tomorrow.

That led to a rather interesting conversation about the current state of affairs in journalism, with Bickerton saying he was especially pleased that Judge Watanabe specifically found that Keoni is, in fact, a journalist, even though he’s working independently. Bickerton had argued in the courtroom that if Keoni was doing the exact same work while on staff at PBS or CBS, there would have been no question that he was a journalist. Yet in this case, he had to prove his qualifications. And they are good ones: he’s won awards for his work, which has been screened at film festivals, and he had received a grant to produce the documentary in question.

Still, as blogger Andy Parx noted in an email:

I'm interested to see what happens when someone without such good qualifications as a journalist but who is acting as one gets challenged

Bickerton also weighed in on that issue, saying that while Hawaii is fortunate to have a media shield law, he would have made it stronger. As it is, it puts a slightly higher burden of proof on someone working independently, he said, and “my egalitarian nature resists that.”

Besides, Bickerton sees independents as representing the future of journalism, and that got us talking about journalists having a point of view. He considers that a good thing:

One of the reason why the mass media is in such a sorry state today is that 50 years some guys decided journalists are supposed to be neutral.

Another intriguing aspect of yesterday’s court hearing was an objection filed by the Attorney General’s office, which Judge Watanabe rejected. As I reported:

Deputy Attorney General Randy Ishikawa had argued that if Alvarez’s film is released during the trial, it could hamper the ability of attorneys to conduct full discovery and question witnesses. The AG’s office wants to know who Alvarez interviewed, Ishikawa said, “so we could seek their consent to the release of that information.”

Bickerton argued that the objection amounted to “a fit of pique by the Attorney General,” who had testified against the shield law. He later said the AG’s objection “was misplaced. Their job is to enforce the law, not to try and wriggle out of it. It’s the public policy of the State of Hawaii to protect journalists.”

It is rather peculiar that the AG’s office went to such lengths, not to mention the expense of flying Randy over from Honolulu for the hearing.

When I asked Bickerton how he felt about representing an independent in the test case, he laughed and said, “Broke.” Yes, he would have been paid handsomely if a MSM reporter had been challenged. But while he didn’t make money on the case, at least he got to do something juicy:

I like being the first one to test the law. That’s what we live for as attorneys.

Mahalo nui to those attorneys who are willing to take on the cases that don’t pay, but are meaningful in other ways. Attorney Harold Bronstein was also in the courtroom yesterday, doing a freebie for someone challenging DLNR, and Dan Hempey just devoted countless unpaid hours to filing an appeal of a Maui District Court ruling on a case involving the sovereignty claims of the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation. I hear Charley Foster also pitched in.

I guess those kinds of cases make it easier for attorneys with a heart and conscience to tolerate their paying clientele, which a lawyer friend characterized as “a bunch of rich people suing each other over nothing.”


Anonymous said...

unbelievable that there was no other press there!

MSM is dying 1) for the reasons Bickerton gave; 2) because bloggers cover the real news (I get better news from eclectic, windmills and planet K than from the GI); and 3) because everyone knows MSM is a slave to its corporate advertising masters and thus, they get protected.

Ed Coll said...

There were around 155 people yesterday along Kuhio Highway in front of Dynasty Court from 4 to 6 pm including a lot of local politicians and the heads of the four public unions holding signs and rallying against Gov. Lingel's firings and furloughs. Not a peep in TGI today! Whats up with that! Are these people invisible? Is this a SCOOP? If so you read it on KauaiEclectic first.

Anonymous said...

wow, it's a drag waiting for hours to see comments

Joan Conrow said...

I'm sure you can find other ways to satisfy your need for immediate gratification.