A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Odds & Ends

By Quill

NRA uses media to bypass election rules

The National Rifle Association’s decision to attempt the purchase of a television or radio station in December drew criticism from Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who wrote in a letter to Federal Elections Commission chairman Ellen Weintraub that the organization should not get a media exemption to campaign finance rules.

The NRA was seeking an exemption from spending limits in the campaign finance law. The exemption would allow the conservative organization to spend as much as it wants on this year’s elections. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told The Associated Press: “We’re looking at bringing a court case that we’re as legitimate a media outlet as Disney or Viacom or Time-Warner.

“Why should they have an exclusive right to relay information to the public, and why should not NRA be considered as legitimate a news source as they are? That’s never been explored legally,” LaPierre said in an interview with AP.

“We urge you to prevent the NRA from hijacking America’s airwaves with the gun lobby’s money,” Sen. Kerry said in the letter. “If the NRA has something to say, it can play by the rules, just like the millions of people in America who do every day.”

Hacker pleads guilty to accessing NYT data

The 22-year-old hacker accused last fall of illegally hacking into a New York Times Co. computer database containing personal information about Op-Ed page contributors pleaded guilty Jan. 8 to one count of computer damage causing more than $5,000 in losses to The Times.

Adrian Lamo turned himself in to federal authorities in Sacramento, Calif., in September. In a plea agreement reached with federal prosecutors, Lamo agreed to serve a prison term of six months to one year.

A judge, however, will determine his punishment during a sentencing hearing set for April 8, Reuters reported. The charge against Lamo accuses him of hacking into The Times’ internal computer network between February and April of 2002. The networked contained Social Security and telephone numbers for more than 3,000 contributors to the Op-Ed page.

After hacking the system, Lamo entered his name, his cellular phone number and a description of his area of expertise: “computer hacking, national security (and) communications intelligence.”

Lamo also was accused of running up thousands of dollars in LexisNexis searches after he had set up five fictitious user identification names and passwords under The Times’ account. The online subscription service provides news and other information for a fee.

Lamo had admitted in February on the Web site SecurityFocus.com that he had broken into The Times’ network. He detailed how he hacked into the site, prosecutors said.

Bush tells staff to cooperate in probe

President Bush informed members of his staff in early January to cooperate with investigators trying to uncover whether an official in his administration leaked a CIA operative’s name to columnist Robert Novak and other reporters.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan wouldn’t say, however, whether Bush will ask staffers to release reporters from confidentiality agreements, a move that could persuade journalists to disclose their confidential sources.

In signing confidentiality waiver forms, investigators may have better access in discovering whether a Bush administration official leaked the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA officer who worked undercover, to Novak and other journalists, The Associated Press reported.

Plame’s husband is former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, who believes his wife’s identity was disclosed in retaliation for his assertions that the Bush administration exaggerated Iraq’s nuclear capabilities in building a case for war.

The FBI had been investigating the leak. By early January, the agency had interviewed more than three dozen Bush administration officials.

Days earlier, Attorney General John Ashcroft had removed himself from the inquiry after Democrats had complained of a conflict of interest.

State tries to force reporter to testify

The New Hampshire attorney general’s office filed a motion in early December to force (Manchester) Union Leader reporter Kathryn Marchocki to testify in the murder trial of an inmate she interviewed in prison.

After interviewing Manuel A. Gehring for an article published in the Union Leader Nov. 11, prosecutors confirmed they needed Marchocki’s testimony because Gehring’s attorneys have indicated they will move to suppress evidence and have the defendant plead insanity. Gehring is charged in the slayings of his two children.

Prosecutors believe Marchocki may have relevant information concerning Gehring’s mental health, according to a report on the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site.

Newsday lays off 26 employees

While newsroom staffers were spared, 26 Newsday employees from several departments were laid off in early January as part of a series of cost-cutting measures, the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper reported Jan. 6.

In a memo to the staff, Publisher Ray Jansen said the steps were meant to address “what continues to be a challenging business environment,” The Associated Press said in a report.

Other measures would include freezing most job openings and cutting nonstaff expenses, the memo stated. The newspaper, which employs nearly 3,000, posted news of the layoffs on its Web site Jan. 6.

Newsday spokesman Stuart Vincent said the laid-off employees have been offered an “advanced severance package.”

Sheriff threatens to jail reporter for call

A North Carolina sheriff threatened a newspaper reporter with imprisonment in December after she called him at home for comment on a story, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

Tonya Maxwell, a reporter for the newspaper, had written numerous articles about how the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department had handled a murder and rape investigation.

Without trial, two men were wrongfully imprisoned for nearly two years for the December 2000 rape and slaying of North Buncombe High School senior Mary Judd, according to a report on the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site.

A Times story reported that Sheriff Bobby Medford told Maxwell on Dec. 1 not to call him at home again. “If you do, I will put you in jail,” Medford allegedly told Maxwell. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart. You’ve caused enough trouble for me and my department.” The story reported that Medford’s home phone number is publicly listed.

Condit sues tabloids for defamation

Former California Rep. Gary Condit, who lost his longtime seat in Congress after negative publicity over his relationship with slain federal intern Chandra Levy, sought $209 million in December from three American Media Inc. tabloids for stories he considered false and defamatory.

Condit, a Democrat, sued the National Enquirer, the Globe and Star Magazine tabloids and parent company AMI, seeking $19 million in actual damages and $190 in punitive damages.

The Boca Raton, Fla.-based AMI said in December it stood behind the editorial integrity of the articles in question, The Associated Press reported. AMI attorney Michael Kahane expected the lawsuit’s dismissal.

The court document, introduced in Palm Beach (Fla.) Circuit Court, details 45 pages of headlines Condit alleges defamed him, such as “Congressman & the intern. Chandra killed in kinky sex game!”

The lawsuit claims the tabloids poorly investigated stories and paid sources for false statements “in a calculated effort” to boost profits, AP reported.

The case was cited as the main cause of Condit’s re-election defeat in a March 2002 primary. He is not considered a suspect in Levy’s unsolved murder.

In July 2003, Condit’s wife, Carolyn, settled a lawsuit with the Enquirer for an undisclosed amount.

Security chief suspended after public comments

After informing reporters in December that her department wasn’t equipped to patrol parks in the Washington, D.C., area and was operating under a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers was suspended.

In a Dec. 5 statement, the National Park Service announced that Chambers had been put on leave for an unspecified amount of time. While the release did not discuss the reasons for the suspension or if Chambers would be paid, the park service later admitted she was penalized for breaking federal rules prohibiting “lobbying” and “discussing budget proposals before they are finalized,” The Washington Post reported.

Union officials, representatives from Capitol Hill and others criticized the decision. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, House Democratic Whip, called the decision to suspend Chambers another part of an “epidemic of secrecy” within the Bush Administration, adding in an interview with The Post: “It will, in my opinion, have a chilling effect on our ability to have effective homeland security and honest and open communication.”

The Interior Department’s National Park Service, which oversees the park police, recently required – but was unable to hire – more officers to patrol Washington’s national monuments. As a result, Chambers said, area parks have become littered with drug dealers and homeless people, according to reports on the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site.

Investigation fails to identify story sources

A United States Secret Service’s internal investigation failed to find who told reporters from U.S. News & World Report about problems within the agency, a report made public in December shows.

A 2002 magazine series prompted a yearlong internal investigation by the Treasury Department, which oversees the Secret Service. The Treasury’s Office of Inspector General investigation was chronicled in a report last week with information obtained by The Washington Post via a Freedom of Information Act request, according to information on the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site.

The investigation failed to discover any current or former Secret Service employees who illegally disclosed sensitive information to the magazine’s reporters, a Dec. 12 story in The Post revealed about the report.

Freedom shareholders agree to sell stock

Shareholders of Freedom Communications Inc. planned in December to cash out more than half their stock in the Irvine, Calif.-based newspaper and television company in a restructuring that put the company’s founding family in partnership with outside investors for the first time.

Following a shareholder vote on the partial sale, the company’s name changed to Freedom Holdings, which is valued at more than $2 billion. Freedom Holdings has been a family-owned company since 1935, when R.C. Hoiles bought the flagship Santa Ana Register.

To allow shareholders to cash out, investment firms Blackstone Group and Providence Equity Partners were prepared in December to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and have arranged for the new company to borrow hundreds of millions more, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Terms of the deal specify that holders of Freedom’s more than 7.8 million shares would receive $220 for every share they sell, less the cost of buying out minority interests in certain Freedom partnerships, the newspaper reported.

FBI looks into scam behind ads

Seattle’s FBI office was examining in December similarities among a number of fraudulent, full-page newspaper ads in at least five newspapers that allegedly cheated the papers of ad dollars and misled millions of readers.

In each instance, the person or people behind the scam waited until the last minute to submit ad copy, which was paid with a counterfeit cashier’s check. A call center was set up to handle orders of down comforters and plasma TVs at low prices for readers.

The scammed papers, which included The Seattle Times, had been receiving the ads over the previous six months. They also include The Austin American-Statesman, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Investigators think one aim of the scam was to gather credit-card numbers, The Times reported. They would then use the numbers by assuming the cardholders’ identities to repeat the scam or for other fraudulent purposes, investigators argued.

Others were affected by the scam. The call center accepting orders for the scam, AmeriCall, was paid with stolen credit card numbers used in an earlier plasma-TV ad scam. When authorities added up the damage, AmeriCall was out $5,600.