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2 Detroit Cases Focus on Public's Right to Information

September 13, 1986|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — When a local television producer and a top Detroit city official were both sent to jail on the same day earlier this week in two different cases, the coincidence brought into sharp focus the fact that the media can often come down on both sides of the long-running debate over the public's right to access to sensitive information.

In the two cases that came to a climax here on Wednesday, the television producer was jailed for refusing to turn over to the police unused tapes of interviews with gang members, while the city official was incarcerated for refusing to turn over to Detroit's two major newspapers records on land owned by the city government.

The two cases were unrelated, and both men have since been released. But the close timing forced the local media into the uncomfortable position of having to protest the jailing of a journalist for protecting confidential information just as attorneys for the city's major dailies were having a city official imprisoned for a similar offense.

'Full of Ironies'

"I see an irony--life is full of ironies," said Kent Bernhard, executive editor of the Detroit Free Press. "But I wouldn't see an inconsistency in the media's position. There are different legal standards in each case."

Bradley Stone of WJBK-TV, the CBS affiliate in Detroit, was sent to jail Wednesday after refusing to turn over taped interviews with Detroit gang members to a local grand jury investigating last year's shooting death of a Michigan state trooper in downtown Detroit.

Although the interviews were conducted several weeks before the shooting, prosecutors insisted that the tapes might help identify gang members suspected in the August, 1985, murder of the state trooper. The interviews were conducted in the same downtown park where the shooting later occurred, and prosecutors believed that they were held with members of the same gang involved in the shooting.

Stone had promised the gang members anonymity, and argued that the interviews took place long before the crime. The prosecutors' position "opens up every piece of tape we have; we would have to turn over everything anytime a crime occurs later at the same place we have done an interview," said William Vance, news director at WJBK.

But local prosecutors successfully argued that Michigan's shield law, which protects print reporters from being held in contempt of court for refusing to divulge their confidential sources, does not apply to the broadcast media.

Picketing by Journalists

As a result, Stone was held in contempt, despite protests and picketing by supportive journalists outside the court. He was released late Thursday after Judge Damon J. Keith of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay in the contempt citation until Stone's appeal can be heard by a three-member circuit court panel.

Meanwhile, Emmett Moten Jr., Detroit's top development official, was also cited for contempt on Wednesday for refusing to provide the Free Press and the Detroit News with records concerning parcels of land owned by the city in an area surrounding a big Chrysler assembly plant targeted for renovation and expansion.

The city argued that, if the records were made public, land speculators would gobble up key pieces of property needed by the city to complete the Chrysler project, costing the city thousands of auto jobs that might then go elsewhere.

But the state courts held that the records were public, and cited Moten for contempt of court for refusing to turn them over to the two newspapers. Moten was released Thursday, but only after the city had turned over some records, and after the already-poor relations between Detroit's city government and the media had reached a new low.

"It is ironic that the media held up Stone as a hero and poor Emmett was anything but," complained Robert Berg, spokesman for Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young.

Bernhard dismissed Berg's complaints, while also insisting that the media's positions in the Stone and Moten cases were not at odds.

"On the one hand, you are dealing with the needs of reporters to preserve their sources of information," Bernhard said. "That's a very different part of media law than what's involved in our case with the city, which is an effort to get a city official to release information that the courts have already ruled should be made public."

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