A television correspondent suggested yesterday that the media take a fighting stance in response to what he called an "unprecedented cracking down on journalism by the judiciary."
CBS legal reporter Fred Graham, speaking at a Washington conference on individual liberties, said, "Perhaps it is time for the press to speak up editorially and let judges know its views." He suggested the media "revert back to an old motto in this country, 'don't tread on me.'"
There was considerable dissent from Graham's view among other journalists and lawyers on a panel at the closing session of the "William O. Douglas Inquiry into the State of Individual Freedom." The program, dedicated to the former Supreme Court justice, was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
Alluding to recent court decisions on police searches of newsrooms, subpoenas of reporters' notes and denial of access, Graham said the issue has become "a macho situation where judges seem determined to show they are the bosses."
He predicted scrutiny of the views on the media held by nominees for the next Supreme Court vacancy, and a questioning of federal judges' lifetime tenures, if the trends continue.
Sander Vanocur, ABC news vice president, agreed that the press is being "gouged" but countered that newsgathering is by nature "hazardous duty." He said experiences, such as the jailing in New Jersey of New York Times reporter Myron Farber, are inevitable regardless of the makeup of the court, "if the job is done right."
Vanocur said the "rampage" on the media is caused by a "post-Watergate retrospective morality" that made stars of reporters and attracted less careful younger reporters to the field.
"The young people coming along don't have the professional willingness to practice sound journalistic techniques," but want to be "social engineers." Vanocur said.
Anthony Lewis, a New York Times columnist and Harvard Law School professor, said it would be "a mistake for the press to work itself into a state of war with judges," as Graham proposed. Lewis agreed with Yale Law professor Robert H. Bork that the media depend on judges for guarantees of their rights, and judges are generally more protective of the press than punitive.
Bork warned of a public "backlash" and greater media restrictions if they insist on publishing information contrary to national interests.
Attorney Floyd Abrams, who defended New York Times reporter Myron Farber against contempt charges that resulted in Farber's spending 40 days in jail for refusing to turn over his notes in a New Jersey murder case, said he is convinced that reporters must be able to withhold their sources' identity if quality newsgathering is to be preserved.
It appears that the privileges of reporters have been singled out by courts and forced to yield when they are in conflict with a defendant's right to fair trial, Abrams said.
University of Texas law professor L. A. Scot Powe had the last word among the speakers. The press is in court more often recently because of "new and novel claims, rising out of new kinds of reporting," he said.
The press has been "losing and screaming" for the last few years, Powe said. "They're being treated like everyone else and that is intolerable. We're all being treated abominably by the Supreme Court these days."