If Addam Swapp had called a press conference on Jan. 16 instead of dynamiting a church to capture media attention, would anyone have been interested?
If Newton C. Estes had passed out brochures to protest the evils of pornography instead of slugging Supreme Court Justice Byron White, would reporters have printed his grievances?And, if the non-violent protests of Swapp and Estes had grabbed an assignment editor's attention, where in the newspaper would the stories run?
Attorney Randy Dryer, who specializes in media law, concedes that it is the nature of the news business to focus on the sensational.
Because of Swapp's curious, polygamist lifestyle and his isolation on the Marion farm, reporters probably would have responded to an invitation to discuss the late John Singer's death and irrigation-water problems, but the story would not be front-page news, said Dryer.
Similarly, reporters would have been interested in Estes' views but not as the lead story on the 10 o'clock news.
Although it is no great secret that reporters thrive on stories like the Marion siege and the Estes assault, the stories should be handled with restraint and sound judgment, said Dryer.
Attention to legitimate forms of civil protest - such as picketing, writing letters to the editor, holding public meetings, circulating petitions - should be taken seriously and given adequate coverage, he said.
Reporting on the "outrageous or violent" should be handled with editorial discretion and responsibility. Too much coverage rewards irrational, violent acts, said Dryer.
"The Utah media generally do a responsible job covering the news. But when a big story comes along - such as the Mark Hofmann case and the Marion standoff, that's when the media should show the best judgment, and that's not always the case," said Dryer.
While he gives the media high marks overall in their coverage of the siege and federal court trial, Dryer cautions Utah reporters to beware of manipulation and exploitation by protesters like Swapp.
"Clearly, the press does not have the responsibility to act as an attorney for Swapp, protecting him from himself. If Swapp wants to tell a reporter his story - even if it may damage his right to a fair trial - a reporter has the journalistic right to print it. But the press ought to be concerned about Swapp's ulterior purposes.
"The credibility of any news organization suffers if it is perceived as sensationalizing the news. The public must not sense that the media are allowing themselves to be taken for a ride."
Part of Swapp's strategy in his attempt to manipulate the press was to initiate phone calls to various Salt Lake reporters - newspaper, television and radio - to relate his story and revelations.
"Had Addam called the same reporter back the next day and wanted to tell his story again, then a news editor should have said, `That's enough!' and refused to print or air Addam's grievance," said Dryer.
"It's not a question of the media's rights, it's a question of judgment," he said.
While Swapp enjoyed limited success in getting his message across through the media during the siege, he failed in his efforts to use the federal trial as a soap box, contends law professor Scott Matheson Jr.
"Despite Swapp's claim to victory, the forum he was hoping for in court didn't materialize," said Matheson.
Currently, Matheson is on a one-year leave from the University of Utah College of Law to serve as a prosecutor in the Salt Lake County attorney's office.
He credits U.S. District Judge Bruce S. Jenkins with keeping the trial focused on the relevant issues and charges. It is a judge's responsibility to protect the integrity of the court.
"A court shouldn't be used as a forum for anyone who wants to get something off his chest. You can't walk into a federal courtroom and air a range of general grievances. If the court process becomes politicized, then justice is diminished," he said.
There are few legal restraints governing how the media cover a story. The media serve as a watchdog for the courts, but no one has the role of governing the media, he said.
In contrast, the court system has a whole range of laws to keep a court proceeding from turning into a soap-box event. Judges may adjourn the proceedings, clear the courtroom, make rulings restricting the scope of the testimony, discipline and fine attorneys or penalize a witness for contempt.
On the national scene, Utahns will remember Gen. William C. Westmoreland's effort to use the courtroom to prove he was defamed by a 1982 CBS broadcast, said Matheson. The story accused Westmoreland's command of systematically understating enemy strength in the months before the 1968 Tet offensive.
The retired general sought $20 million in his libel suit.
"What Westmoreland really wanted to accomplish in court was to rewrite history. The trial opened the whole Vietnam experience to re-examination. He was trying to do more than vindicate his reputation," said Matheson.
After an 18-week trial, Westmoreland eventually realized the issues he wanted to address were more appropriate for another forum - not a courtroom - and dropped his suit.
Comedienne Carol Burnett appropriately used the court as a forum to clear her name, said Matheson.
A Los Angeles jury in 1981 awarded Burnett $1.6 million in her libel case against the National Enquirer. The jury found that a gossipy item about how she had a tipsy run-in with Henry Kissinger in a Washington restaurant was false and malicious. (The award was later reduced to $800,000.)
Burnett's case sent a significant message on ethics to reporters dealing with the reputations of celebrities, said Matheson.
The courts are in the business of resolving definable wrongs, civil or criminal, and should not to be used as a means to gain access to the media, he said.
"It is not the purpose of the court to allow individuals like Swapp to grandstand or play to the media. To allow such manipulation of the judiciary would undermine the public confidence in the justice system."
In spite of every effort by Swapp to turn the courtroom into a center stage, the Swapp-Singer trial was conducted in a timely, professional manner.
"Swapp's avowed purpose of using the court as a soap box was frustrated," said Matheson. "And Utahns' confidence in the courts was enhanced."