In retrospect, it wasn't Katie Baker's best day.
Then again, it wasn't KUTV's best day, either.
But all of their worst days together have added up to one huge bad day for Utah's 5th District Judge James Shumate and for the Constitution.
Baker's bad day started awhile earlier when, while on her way to cover her first big trial the one involving polygamist leader Warren Jeffs in St. George she decided to skim the nine-page "Third amended decorum order" Shumate had issued in the case. The decorum order specified the rules for media coverage of the trial, everything from how reporters obtain credentials to where they could park satellite trucks.
Had she read it carefully, she would have seen the part on Page 5 that prohibited anyone from publishing "a likeness of any juror or prospective juror, in a manner that discloses or may disclose the identity of that person." The order went as far as to prohibit conversations with prospective jurors, or even showing them in the background of photographs.
Maybe then she wouldn't have struck up a conversation with Mo Webb outside the courthouse, and she certainly wouldn't have interviewed her on camera and broadcast her feelings about Warren Jeffs on the Sept. 10 news. Webb was in the pool of prospective jurors.
I don't know Baker, but I can feel some sympathy for her. I was a young reporter once, sent to cover city council meetings, court trials and crime stories with little understanding and no help from any newsroom veterans.
In this business, a lot of people believe experience is the best teacher. We may be professional communicators, but we don't communicate well with each other.
Other news professionals I've spoken with about this case have little sympathy for Baker. Everyone else read and followed the decorum order, after all. She also ran afoul of a basic prejudice print reporters have for those in the broadcast world a prejudice that likely will seem quaint one day as both sides gravitate toward the Internet.
In other words, my sympathies and about $3 would buy her a decent hamburger once this ordeal is over.
But that doesn't justify what Shumate did.
First, he held Baker in contempt of court. That part doesn't bother me.
But then he ordered her to produce "a newscast addressing a public need within the broadcast market of KUTV," and to submit a copy of it to the court.
Cue the alarm bells.
The First Amendment Center regularly releases surveys that measure how well Americans understand that part of the Constitution. The results seldom are encouraging, so the subtleties of Shumate's order may be lost on many people.
The First Amendment guarantees five freedoms. Maybe it would help to frame this around one of them that doesn't involve the press. Suppose, for instance, that a judge ordered a minister found in contempt to write a sermon on a topic of public interest and submit it to the court. The judge then, presumably, would determine whether that sermon was good enough to satisfy him, or whether the minister should be sent to jail.
No government official has the right to tell a church what to preach. And no official has the right to tell a reporter what he or she must produce. That's basic America 101.
Shumate's order specifies that Baker does not have to publish the piece. "This court does not presume to tell a television station what is or is not worth its broadcast resources," he wrote. Why, then, does he presume to order the station to use its resources to satisfy him?
The Las Vegas Review-Journal suggested Baker "perform the 'public service' of filming a documentary on the way judges overreach their authority in modern America."I like that. A better suggestion, however, would be for Shumate to reconsider and simply reprimand Baker, who surely will read every word of every decorum order from now on. If not, all sides could have a lot more very bad days.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]