A journalists group that is working to open up D.C. courtrooms on television cameras has asked local news media to keep the lid on their negotiations with D.C. judges.
In a memo to editors and news directors last week, the local chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, a professional journalism society, described its efforts and added:
"It was decided, based on discussions with Chief Judge (Theodore R.) Newman, that news stories regarding this effort would be detrimental to the cause at this time."
The three-page memo, dated Sept. 3 and written by Channel 7 news reporter Betsy Ashton, also suggested that the rivalry between the city's two bar associations might be used to open up the courtrooms.
"Both might rush to be the first to pass a progressive resolution' on this issue!" the memo said.
The society is attempting to change a long-time policy banning television cameras, radio equipment, tape recorders and still cameras, from the D.C. Superior Courthouse. Reporters are allowed to cover trials but they can only take notes. Artists are permitted to draw pictures in the courtrooms.
Ashton, chairman of the group's Subcommittee for Cameras in the Court, said in an interview that SDX was trying to minimize publicly about the talks so that Superior Court Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I would not feel that he was being pressured to make a decision favorable to the media. Moultrie's support is important because most of the city's most publicized trials take place in his court.
"He is a very proud and dignified man and we wanted to give him time to decide without pressure," Ashton said of the chief judge.
"It would look like we're trying the case in the press if stories appeared now," said Ashton. She added that she thought it was unfair for The Washington Post, which received the memo because of its identity as part of the city's journalism industry, to use it as the basis of a news story.
Moultrie said Friday that he is "studying the whole situation of the cameras. My interest is to see that the cameras would not disturb the normal decorum of the courtrooms."
The chief judge said he hopes to visit Florida within the next 90 days and study how television coverage of trials has worked in that state. Unlike some other states, Florida does not give judges automatic veto authority over television coverage.
According to the memo, the National Association of Broadcasters would help Moultrie schedule the trip and Post-Newsweek officials, who led the battle for televised courtroom coverage in Florida, would host Moultrie's visit, but he would pay his own expenses.
"The most important thing to do is to convince Judge Moultrie to support an experimental program to try camera coverage in the D.C. Superior Court according to the Florida rules (those most favorable to the news media)," the Sigma Delta Chi memo said.
When Moultrie returns, the memo said, a demonstration will be staged in a District courtroom to demonstrate how unobstrusively the cameras and microphones could be positioned, according to the memo.
Newman, chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, supports television coverage, according to the memo. Asked about the memo last week, Newsman declined to answer questions but said it correctly stated his support.
John Jude O'Donnell, president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, endorsed television coverage, saying, "It's innovative and it ought to be tried under some guidelines." An association committee has been formed to study the proposal, the president said.
Stephen Pollak, president of the D.C. Bar, said he has turned the issue over to that group's division of courts, lawyers and the administration of justice for study and recommendations.
Sigma Delta Chi wants to open courtrooms to cameras because, "We think as journalists the public has a right to know what goes on in court," said Martin Gershen, chairman of the local chapter's Freedom of Information Committee.
"The purpose of a trial is so that the public can view it and the person on trial gets a public trial," he added.
Cameras were banned from courtrooms after news photographers using bulky cameras with brilliant flashbulbs disrupted the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted in 1932 of the Lindbergh baby kidnap-murder.Television and radio equipment were added to the proscribed list later.
But now that television minicameras, about a quarter of the size of their predecessors, can operate without special lighting, broadcast journalists are pushing for their acceptance in courtrooms.
"The technology has changed, so why not give the public the opportunity to see trials as they really happen rather than be interpreted through the eyes of an artist or reporter?" Ashton said.
"We think the administration of justice can be helped because every city will get a better understanding of how the courts work," said Stephen Nevas, of the National Association of Broadcasters.