Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

As Today's Tony Lewises Disappear, Courts Fill Void

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

As Today's Tony Lewises Disappear, Courts Fill Void

Article excerpt

Anthony Lewis was a giant in the world of journalism. I am honored to participate in this symposium to recognize his many contributions to journalism in general, and more specifically, to the coverage of the courts.

Tony was a gifted writer, who covered one of the most challenging beats in Washington. His nine "news makers" were not generally accessible to journalists, and their work product was not easily decipherable. Yet Tony made the Supreme Court both understandable and relevant to his readers.

Regrettably, the number of journalists who cover courts today, let alone those who write with Tony's insight and clarity, is very small and rapidly declining. Any number of reports, most notably, the annual State of the News Media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism ("PEJ"), chronicles the shrinking newspaper newsroom workforce, which in 2012 was reported to be at its lowest level since 1978. (1)

And even more relevant to Tony Lewis and his old beat were the remarks Politico reporter Josh Gerstein made in a 2012 speech entitled, "Have the Media Stopped Covering Courts?" (2) "[B]asic reporting on the courts has taken a huge hit in the current economic climate," Gerstein said. He further explained:

   Newspapers that used to have a reporter in every courthouse in
   their communities now are lucky to have a single reporter covering
   the dozen or so courts in their coverage zone. TV stations and
   networks cover a few high-profile cases, but little more. Some
   reporters wouldn't have any idea if they're entitled to cover jury
   selection or copy a court exhibit because they've never tried, or
   been allowed to try. (3)

Even the press corps who regularly cover Tony's old beat, the highest Court in the land, have changed dramatically in nature and numbers. The full-time credentialed press corps, which once numbered forty, is now twenty-six. (4) Gone from the press room are reporters from evening papers, news magazines, and most regional papers. However, there are an equal, if not greater, number of people who parachute in to cover a single case before the High Court. And they may be bloggers, or writers for limited circulation, or special interest publications. (5)

When the Supreme Court makes news, it is often front-page news, but the Court hears only about eighty oral arguments per term. (6) The overwhelming majority of cases are resolved by the inferior courts, as they are called in Article III, Section 1 of the United States Constitution. (7) And it is the work of these courts--the cases, the people, the trends, and most importantly, the impact--that is increasingly ignored by the news media.

In a 2010 interview published in the Maine Bar Journal, U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby was asked, "[W]hat is the biggest challenge the federal judiciary faces today?" (8) As a highly respected jurist who has occupied several key national leadership positions in judicial administration, (9) Judge Hornby's response was prophetic:

   We are becoming invisible except for the highest profile trials....
   The federal judiciary must find a way to reach out. A primary
   reason for what we do is deterrence and if people don't know what
   we do, how can there be deterrence? (10)

Change comes slowly in most judicial systems, whether it relates to the law or the administrative apparatus that runs the courts. Aristotle said, "The virtue of justice consists of moderation, as regulated by wisdom." (11) While he was not referring to courts and their experiences with the changing media landscape, his observation and insights are applicable here.

Yet courts have made significant progress in their interactions with the media and the public, particularly since Tony Lewis stepped aside from his Supreme Court beat in the mid-1960s to become a foreign correspondent and columnist. (12)

These changes may seem modest to some, particularly compared to the other branches of government. …

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