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Jack Landau, first executive director of the Reporters Committee, ‘First Amendment guerilla,’ dies at 74

From the Fall 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 26. Earlier this year, as the federal…

From the Fall 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 26.

Earlier this year, as the federal shield law came up for yet another round of debates in Congress, Jack Landau got on the phone with an old cohort from the Reporters Committee. It had been perhaps 30 years since he and longtime steering committee member Fred Graham went before Congress to oppose a shield law they considered weak.

Now, with waves of journalists facing contempt orders over growing numbers of subpoenas, that long-forgotten draft would seem a blessing.

“He was the old Jack,” Graham recalled. “He was still urging me to go out and round up a group of publishers and talk them into taking a hard line” in favor of the new bill.

Landau, the first executive director of the Reporters Committee, who engineered its growth from a loose collaboration of working reporters into a full-service legal assistance organization, died on Aug. 9. He was 74.

A lawyer and a journalist, Landau devoted his career to news and over the years he worked at it from a variety of angles: He covered the Supreme Court for Newhouse Newspapers, served as spokesman for Attorney General John Mitchell at the start of the Nixon administration and, in the 1970s, took over the day-to-day management of the Reporters Committee. At that time, Graham said, the group’s primary focus was on protecting reporters against subpoenas for their confidential sources.

In fact, that was the fight that got the committee started. New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell had been subpoenaed for sources he used to cover the Black Panthers; when The Times, at the advice of its attorneys, opted to have him testify, Graham said a group of journalists got together: “We formed the Reporters Committee to try to get some power of our own, that was separate and distinct from the publishers.”

They wanted to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Caldwell. But the journalists at first had trouble finding lawyers with First Amendment expertise who would take on their cause. It was Landau who dialed into the legal community and discovered that for that type of case, many media attorneys “will work for nothing — they’ll do it for love or for publicity or both,” Graham said. “That was the first move that Jack made that really permitted us to do what we wanted to do.”

With that determined spirit, Landau, the self-proclaimed “First Amendment guerilla,” eventually became executive director of the Reporters Committee. During his 15-year tenure he set up the legal assistance hotline for journalists; pushed for state and federal shield laws; launched the magazine that eventually became The News Media & the Law; and hired attorneys to write briefs and wage legal battles on behalf of the press.

Landau himself was a graduate of New York University Law School and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

For a long time, Graham said, Landau felt conflicted over how closely the committee should be allied with the powerhouse publishers and corporate heads in the news industry; on the one hand he sensed he needed their support “to get anything done if you were dealing with Congress;” on the other, he thought they were overly cautious in free-press advocacy.

So it was that in the early days, with journalism riding a relatively high post-Watergate wave of popularity, Landau led a committee that was “pretty militant,” Graham said. Hence their refusal to endorse a federal shield law that would have gone farther to protect journalists than anything under consideration today.

“Over the years we learned that we had to moderate our approach to some extent or we would just be ignored,” Graham said, but “Jack Landau brought his fire and combativeness to the Reporters Committee at a time when they sorely needed it.”

Landau is survived by a son, Nicholas, and a daughter, Ariel.