One of the local television stations has a new assignment editor, and his name is Brad Karren.
That's funny, one might think: A TV guy's name is the same as a circuit judge in Benton County. In this case, it's not just a name. We're talking about the same black-robed jurist.
What’s the point?
A television station’s willingness to accept a story assignment from a judge to keep one of its editors out of legal trouble sets a worrisome precedent for that news organization and for the court system.
And as far as we know, he hasn't given up a legal career for a stint in TV news. But he has taken on the role of editor for KFSM Channel 5 by working out a deal with real-life KFSM Managing Editor Larry Henry for a story about child safety. Why would Henry turn over the reins of the news division to a judge? To get himself out of trouble.
All this funny business started in the most serious of situations: A man on trial facing the death penalty in the murder of a 6-year-old girl in Bentonville.
Karren presided over the trial, and as judges are prone to do these days, he issued an order banning all electronic posts -- such as "tweeting" to Twitter or other social media sites -- from the courtroom. Karren's order even required such electronic devices to be turned off. It's a fairly basic expectation of courtroom decorum, especially in such a serious judicial proceeding as this one, and Karren's order had been clearly communicated.
Order schmorder. Henry posts a message "BREAKING Zachary Holly guilty of capital murder in 6-year-old Jersey Bridgeman's death" within seconds of the jury's decision. Courtroom video shows Henry sitting in the courtroom gallery tapping away on his cell phone. Henry's clear violation led the judge to hold him in contempt of court. It's pretty rare for a journalist to so egregiously defy a judge's order and for a judge to hold a reporter in contempt. On June 10, Henry appeared with lawyer Joel Huggins and admitted to violating the judge's order.
So what, right? Each news organization has its own ethical boundaries and Henry was just applying his. But what's disconcerting was still to come.
Rather than jailing or fining Henry, Karren and the TV station worked out a deal: Henry would air a story on KFSM within 30 days about a topic of the judge's liking, child safety. A status hearing is scheduled July 16 to ensure Henry followed through on the Karren's story assignment to the judge's satisfaction.
Contempt of court is certainly the right charge here. Henry put his organization's eagerness to gain a few seconds on other outlets in tweeting the verdict. The judge appropriately gave Henry a verbal lashing, but this news assignment by judge goes beyond the pale and the news organization should have rejected the request.
From the very founding of the nation, there's been an awareness that it's healthy to keep government out of dictating the news. That First Amendment is there to ensure the people and the press have every right to raise questions about government's actions. The less government has to do with news-gathering, the better. Seeing a judge and a news organization so eager to negotiate what should be covered so an editor can extricate himself from poor judgment should be uncomfortable for everyone.
We're not saying child safety isn't a topic for news coverage; it is and has been when news editors determine such stories merit the assignment of resources to such coverage. If there's a story that needs to be done, KFSM should be doing it for its viewers anyway, not getting an editor out of hot water by such promises.
It will be interesting to see if Karren, a judge who stands for re-election from time to time, ends up featured in Henry's court-imposed sentence, er, story.
Keep this in mind, too: A 19-year-old girl who took pictures in Karren's courtroom last year and posted them to her Facebook page got a whopping five days in the Benton County jail last summer.
Karren apparently has a different standard for those willing to produce TV segments he's interested in.
Commentary on 06/17/2015
Print Headline: Brad Karren, newsman