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October 6, 2005

From the Publisher

Case of ethics


Last week the Journal was served with a search warrant from Trinidad Police Chief Ken Thrailkill, signed by Judge Bruce Watson. In this particular case, we complied and turned over a copy of a single faxed page that the chief asserts "is evidence which tends to show a felony had been committed or a particular person has committed a felony."

Why we complied with this request when we fought a similar one in 2003 needs some explanation.

This case involves material gathered for the Sept. 1 cover story, "Web of lies," which exposed a letter-writing hoax to local newspapers by political consultant Richard Salzman. At first we believed this paper and others were somehow lax in checking the authenticity of e-mailed letters. We later learned we were the victims of a scheme by Salzman, who borrowed the identity of several Eureka residents without their knowledge and sent letters from his home computer in Trinidad; a male (presumably not Salzman), who answered a Eureka residential telephone of a woman now deceased, was used to verify the "authenticity" of those letters.

Since the story broke, both the Times-Standard and the Eureka Reporter have expressed views over whether or not materials relating to the Salzman investigation should be shared with the police. The Reporter said yes, since a crime may have been committed; its staff not only turned over all material in its file, the newspaper filed a complaint, which kicked off the investigation. The T-S said that it would not turn over letters it had received under one of Salzman's aliases.

This is not a black-and-white case of press ethics. Our Sacramento attorney said since the Journal may have been a victim of a crime, it negates our obligation to protect confidential sources and/or material gathered; voluntarily cooperating with a police investigation, in this case, may be warranted. However, a fellow at the Poynter Institute told us newspaper readers and sources need to be reassured that whatever they bring to a paper is held in strictest confidence; it is not our job to act as an arm of law enforcement.

Presented with a search warrant, we complied. In this case, the item sought by police was a fax sent by Salzman on Monday, Aug. 28, clearly marked "press release" and titled, "Confessions of a prolific letter writer." We assumed he had sent it to other newspapers, but later learned he did not. In the meantime, responding to requests from other media, we sent copies to the Times-Standard, the Eureka Reporter and a Bay Area freelance reporter. Our conclusion was that a fax marked "For immediate release, Aug. 29, 2005" was never meant to be privileged material.

In 2003, readers may recall, we refused to cooperate with a subpoena from Pacific Lumber Co. attorneys requesting all our notes, tapes, unpublished photos and anything else we had in our files concerning a story we did on Freshwater treesitters. With the expensive help of our attorney, we argued that the law was clear: In civil cases, where an individual or corporation sues another, a reporter's material is protected. We accused the timber company of harassment, since the Washington Post and the Times-Standard had published similar stories and did not receive subpoenas. (The Post editor laughed and said, "They wouldn't dare," or something to that effect.) It took some time and attorney expertise, but the Journal prevailed.

Could we have successfully fought the search warrant we were handed last week? Probably so. Again, though, this was a clearly labeled press release not a private letter or notes detailing an off-the-record conversation. We did not see what purpose would be served by fighting to keep from the police a document that advertised itself as public, meant to be distributed far and wide for all to see.


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