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Judge Orders TV Reporter to Do Story or Face Contempt

Judge Orders TV Reporter to Do Story or Face Contempt



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A judge ordered a TV news reporter Wednesday to produce a public-service story as a consequence for airing an interview with a potential juror before the recent trial of a polygamous-sect leader.

Fifth District Judge James Shumate had barred the news media from any contact with potential jurors until after the trial of Warren Jeffs.

Katie Baker of KUTV in Salt Lake City said she was unaware of the prohibition when she interviewed a woman outside the courthouse in southern Utah's Washington County. The station aired her report Sept. 10, the second day of jury selection.

"She violated the order," Baker's attorney, Jeff Hunt, told The Associated Press. "But she did that not knowing it was prohibited by the court. It was a mistake."

During a hearing, Shumate accepted Baker's explanation but gave her 90 days to complete a public-service story and provide a DVD to the court or be found in contempt, Hunt said.

"It does bother me a little bit that he would order a reporter to do a story. ... The station is reviewing its next steps," the attorney said.

Hunt said the judge did not explain what story would meet his public-service benchmark. Shumate's office said a written version of the ruling was being prepared.

"It's unclear to us, frankly, and we're looking for clarification on that," KUTV news director Tanya Vea said.

Baker could be jailed or fined if the judge holds her in contempt, Hunt said.

Floyd Abrams, an attorney and First Amendment expert, said Shumate's decision was extraordinary. "The notion that a judge can either compel a journalist to write a story, or sit in judgment on a story to determine if it sufficiently serves the public interest, is extremely disturbing," Abrams said in an interview from New York.

"It puts the judge in a classic role of censor," he said. "The judge is deciding whether the story is worthy or not -- not even if it's true but whether it's worthy."

Baker, a KUTV reporter for 10 months, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. In an affidavit filed with the court, she said the interview was a mistake.

Baker said she was inexperienced in covering courts and didn't know about the prohibition on contacting members of the jury pool.

In Baker's TV interview, the potential juror, Mo Webb, made critical comments about Jeffs. "I believed that Ms. Webb almost surely would be dismissed as a juror. Consequently, I believed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that it was proper to interview Ms. Webb," Baker's affidavit states.

KUTV removed the story from its Web site the next day after a complaint from court spokeswoman Nancy Volmer.

Vea said others at the station understood the judge's order against juror contact but the story still "slipped through the cracks."

"The person who knew the decorum order the best, our managing editor, just wasn't involved with that particular story that day," she said.

Jeffs will be sentenced Nov. 20 for rape as an accomplice in the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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