Wednesday, January 24, 2007

‘On The Grand Jury Beat’ & Other Reporter Notes

Okay, it doesn’t look like this––
but it felt like it at the time.

(Grand Jury investigations are protracted, complex, and difficult for everyone involved. By their nature, they are secret. Nonetheless, news organizations are obliged to cover them when their focus may involve some aspect of government. This post intends no disrespect for those who face dealing with this legal process. If anything, it's intended as a self-deprecating look at what's sometimes involved for reporters in covering it.)

I spent much of my day on Tuesday patrolling the halls of federal court, covering Sheriff Deputy Gim Yee's appearance before the grand jury. This sort of thing is always an odd and interesting experience. Reporters from most news organizations in town sit or stand outside the room where subpoenaed witnesses are to appear. We alternate between cell phone conversations––whispered out of earshot––and the small talk you'd hear in any workplace. When the door opens, you never know who will exit. Once it was an FBI agent, whom I greeted with "just like old times"––a reference to media stakeouts during the Wecht and Sheriff's office investigations.

When Deputy Sheriff Yee and his attorney Mark Lancaster suddenly appeared in the hallway, they briskly walked through the middle of the media camp-out. Reporters scrambled: simultaneously calling out questions to the men, phoning to alert the photographers who must wait in the breezy cold out on Grant Street, and calculating which of several routes the pair might take to exit the building.

Yee and Lancaster power-walked toward the far end of the long hallway, suggesting they were heading for the elevators which would deposit them a block down the street from the photographers.

Then at the elevator bank, they made a sharp turn to the left and through the doors of a stairwell. At least one reporter still took an elevator, hoping to get ahead of them and warn the photographers. The rest of us quickly followed down the steps. Would they walk down seven floors? It was looking like it. I called after them as we followed, "Would you gentlemen be willing to stop and talk with us, once we're outside?" Lancaster answered "no". "Would you recommend stair-walking as part of a cardiovascular fitness program?" A chuckle came from Lancaster, but no firm endorsement.

When we reached the second floor, they left the stairwell and appeared to be heading for the U.S. Marshall's office. On this floor, they reversed field, heading down this second long hallway in a direction completely opposite their path on the seventh floor. They would exit where the photographers were waiting, after all.

Or not. In the end, the attorney and the witness left federal court via a loading dock at the rear of the building. When reporters and photographers converged on them, it was at the corner of 7th and Grant, as they prepared to cross the intersection. That's where the on-camera exchange of questions and "no comment" you saw on the news took place.

Some random notes:

•Mackenzie Carpenter of the Post-Gazette has a story that sets the scene for monitoring local campaign web sites. still appears to be a placeholder for things to come; its only link is a form for contacting the campaign. A check of this morning shows it has no links at all yet.

•Readers are still posting comments about the recent intersection of local blogging and mainstream media coverage of the Ravenstahl incident. You can click here to read the latest, including my response to some anonymous posters.

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