From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27.
By Chris Moeser
When Jenna Bush walked into Austin Community Court on May 16, cameras were waiting. So were the Austin City Marshals.
The marshals, who provide courtroom security, blocked photographers from filming President Bush’s 19-year-old daughter until a resourceful investigative reporter — with the help of a cooperative judge — found a way around the obstruction.
The result? A few brief shots of Bush, wearing a sleeveless black shirt, pink capri pants, and flip-flops, pleading no contest to an alcohol charge.
“We got the video we needed, but it certainly wasn’t easy,” said Nanci Wilson, a KVUE-TV investigative reporter who evaded the marshals’ efforts.
The case shows the continuing tension between the media and the courts over the sensitive issue of cameras in the courtroom. And it demonstrates that reporters must be vigilant advocates for themselves, willing to take the uncomfortable step of standing up in a courtroom and arguing the case for media access.
From the outset, Wilson tried to ensure that her station could get footage of Bush. Before the hearing, Wilson called Judge Elisabeth Earle to find out the camera policy for her courtroom. Earle sometimes permits cameras, but she declined to allow them for the Bush hearing, saying she feared that dozens of still and video cameras would be a distraction.
However, Earle assured Wilson that cameras would be permitted in the court building, meaning photographers could shoot pictures of Bush in hallways and through slit-windows in the courtroom doors.
But when Wilson showed up, the windows were taped over. “I couldn’t believe it,” Wilson recalled. She hurried to the court’s public information officer and relayed what Earle had told her on the phone. Within 10 minutes, the public information officer instructed marshals to remove the tape from the windows.
That was only the start of her problems. Just as the tape was coming off the windows, a marshal informed Wilson that camera crews were not allowed in the building.
“Kind of a moot point to raise a stink about the window,” the marshal huffed at Wilson.
She headed for the courtroom and waited for Earle to begin the hearing. When the judge entered, Wilson stood up and asked for a clarification. Earle repeated that there would be no cameras permitted in the court, but said they were allowed in the building and everywhere outside the courtroom.
Wilson 2, marshals 0.
But the marshals were not done obstructing the media’s attempt to cover the hearing. When photographers arrived, they found court marshals standing in front of the doors, blocking any shot of the hearing. Wilson approached them and took down their names.
“Looks like you’re going to be in our lead story. In fact, you’re going to be the story,” Wilson explained. The marshals backed away, and Wilson took a seat in the courtroom.
But when Bush finally walked into court, two new marshals took positions outside the doors, again blocking the view. So Wilson decided to exit the court slowly, opening the door wide enough so that the photographers could get their shots. After several trips, the marshals caught on and blocked her from entering the court again. Wilson immediately demanded to know whether she was under arrest.
“Either arrest me or move out of the way,” she told the marshals. They eventually got out of the way, after what she described as a few “go to hell” glares.
One Time magazine reporter told Wilson that watching the media and the marshals was more interesting than the Jenna Bush story.
Wilson’s station and others got the footage they needed, but not without fighting for it. She said reporters must be prepared to raise objections with the judge — even in court — to ensure they get the legally guaranteed access.
As another example, she pointed to a recent incident in Austin Jail Court. Wilson wanted to film a hearing and was told that cameras had never been permitted. When she inquired further, she found out no journalist had ever asked. She asked for permission, and received it.
“I’ve been in hearings where not one reporter will stand up and say anything,” Wilson said. “You can stand up and object. You have to have nerve. This is what we’re supposed to do — push, agitate.”
The marshals defended their handling of the Bush case by saying they followed Earle’s instructions as closely as possible. They interpreted the ban on cameras in the courtroom expansively to mean no cameras anywhere near the courtroom.
“There would be no reason not to have cameras in the courtroom if you could film through the window,” explained Rebecca Stark, the Austin Municipal Court clerk.
“If there’s no filming inside the courtroom, that means no filming of the courtroom,” Stark said.
That was not what Earle had in mind. But the judge defended the marshals and said they misunderstood her instructions. “They were doing their job,” she said.
Earle added that she was pressured to close the hearing and to keep secret the time of Bush’s appearance. She did not elaborate on who pressed for the closed hearing.
“I felt that was not right. I felt the public should know what’s going on,” Earle said.
“It’s very important we leave the courtrooms open to the media as a matter of public policy . . . I guess I had to deal with whether it was going to be a circus,” the judge said.
With dozens of cameras there to cover the hearing, Earle worried about disruptions. “There would have been no way we could have conducted business,” she said. “Ultimately I feel like I made the right decision. It was the best way it could have been handled.”
Earle praised Wilson for bringing the problems to her attention, and for checking with the court days before the hearing to find out what the ground rules were.
The best thing you can do is get as much information as possible from the judge up front, Earle said. “Let them know what to expect.”
The judge added that Wilson acted properly in raising her concerns at the hearing.
“She was doing her job,” Earle said. “I think it was better for her to have said something than nothing at all.” u