Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Randy, Part II

Apparently worried that Randy Lerner is actually serious, WOIO-19 has struck first, filing a declaratory action in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court asking that its contract with the Browns remain in force. A declaratory action is a pre-emptive legal filing designed to bring a controversy to court before something happens that would force the issue in court. In this case, the Browns have repeatedly threatened to break their contract with Channel 19 for "cause" claiming a litany of offenses culminating with the the playing of a 9-1-1 tape of Lerner's sister phoning in the tragic report of her daughter's drowning in a nearby creek. Seeking to perhaps gain the upper hand in the on-going discussions with the Browns, Channel 19 filed the action complaining that they are being threatened with termination and asking the court to clarify the parties' respective rights.

As noted in my previous post on this subject, it's not surprising that the "First Amendment" card has been played, this time in the person of PD Columnist Sam Fullwood. In yesterday's PD, he stakes out the all-t0-familiar ground in which the columnist tries to teach the rest of the great unwashed a civics lesson about the importance of a free press. He goes even a step further by suggesting that the 9-1-1 call was "news" and that the Lerner family is being no different then a similarly-situated poor family.

This, I think, is where Fullwood goes seriously astray. Undoubtedly the accidental death of a young person in this community likely ends up on the news somewhere. The less desperate media outlets probably push it to later in the broadcast. The PD probably puts it on page 3 of the Metro section. But this death ended up the lead story everywhere precisely because it involved a member of one of the richest, most prominent families in Cleveland. Already, then, the Lerners are being treated differently because of their status, and not necessarily in a positive way. But that is the news business and I have no quibble with that.

But if Fullwood were correct with respect to the 9-1-1 tape our daily newscasts would be filled with tapes of similar tragedies--they're not--and the PD would be publishing transcripts of such tapes on a regular basis--they're not. So spare me your rightousness that the Lerners are being treated similarly. They're not.

The truth of the matter is that the reporting of the news is not and never was intended to be an unfiltered process. That's why TV, radio and print news outlets employ editors in the first place. The very nature of their job is to make informed judgments of the newsworthiness of any particular item. And in this case all the editors except the one employed by Channel 19 opted for the considered judgment that playing the tape added nothing newsworthy to the story.

But our friend Sam sees a conspiracy in that result and applauds Channel 19 for its bravery. He's got that backward. Refusing to exercise judgment and restraint, when appropriate, is not bravery. It's an abdication of responsibility. The brave soles are the editors at the other outlets who did their jobs.

It's hard to know how this dispute gets resolved but my guess is that the contract stays in place. Legally, proving "cause" in this context is a very difficult task. If I was representing Channel 19, the first thing I'd do is argue that Lerner had to know when he signed the contract that Channel 19 has been run like a high school media project for several years now. Any station that lets a "reporter" get naked in the name of a "story" can hardly be blamed now for again exercising bad judgment. It should have been expected and for that Lerner has learned a painful lesson. He knew he got into bed with a skank and now is surprised when it continues to act like one. Unfortunately for Randy, case closed.

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