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Do you ever wonder if people try and go out of their way to be nasty or stupid... or both? Or maybe the person is simply uninformed and I am reading this wrong? Someone sent me a Web site this morning in which I was accused of having a "conflict of interest" in reporting on the Zacarias Moussaoui verdict Monday afternoon on Neil Cavuto's show. I don't know the Web site, but did read what was e-mailed me. The obvious suggestion was that I had some secret agenda in my reporting on the verdict in the Eastern District of Virginia.
What was my so-called conflict that this Web site blogger was so upset about? I said on the air, while reporting on the Moussaoui verdict yesterday during Neil Cavuto's show, that in 1978 (yes, 1978), I was an intern in the Office of the United States Attorney where the judge on the case had once been a federal prosecutor. I was in school. Yes, I did research for her and the other many federal prosecutors — almost 30 years ago! (Incidentally, I have not seen her since then!)
The posted blog shows a fundamental lack of understanding about what a "conflict of interest" is. But the posting does give me a chance to educate (and perhaps provoke a good discussion and debate.) A conflict of interest is the withholding of pertinent information so that people can't reach a fair and reasoned opinion. A conflict of interest is not a passing association with someone almost 30 years ago, unless that association had a profound and lasting impact (e.g. a firing).
Suppose my connection to the judge were recent and close (i.e. suppose I socialize with her on a regular basis), and the issue were whether the judge is a good judge (not simply what is the verdict?). Then it would be right to disclose that information so that the viewer could make a decision as to how much weight to assign my comments.
Even if I had a close association, that would not necessarily bar me from commenting — but it might be something worthy of disclosing so that viewers could decide whether my comments were fair or colored by that close association or some significant event. Likewise, suppose I had a running feud with the judge and I took a swipe at her — a feud would be something I should tell the viewers so that the viewers could decide whether my swipe were personal or properly rooted in fact. You create a conflict of interest when you hide pertinent info, not when you disclose it in a timely manner.
I mentioned the internship on the air to give a little local color to the story and to tell the viewers how I perceived her as a federal prosecutor — not even a judge. I live here in Washington, just over the river from this federal court. I know about this court, as do the thousands of other lawyers who practice here. My experience gives a little more information that might shed a little more on the criminal justice system in the Eastern District of Virginia that another legal analyst who has not tried cases there might not have. Period.
It is also noteworthy in debating this issue that yesterday Moussaoui was the story, not the judge. A conflict of interest rarely rises when reporting on a topic that might be collateral or incidental to the main thrust of the report.
On the bright side, I do appreciate the chance to blog about the topic. I owe the blogger one — he or she has given me a topic to blog about. (Frankly, I woke up this morning thinking, what topic can I blog about?)
And while I am at it, let me plug the legal profession. The legal profession, unlike I think any other profession — including journalism, has a code of responsibility with a specific clause about conflicts of interest. We actually have a course in law school called "Professional Responsibility" in which we are taught about conflicts of interest and discuss them.
On to another topic, I received e-mails from some viewers with very hostile things to say about Matthew and Mary Winkler's church and religion. The critical e-mails are the malcontents, not the many who are happy and gain much by being members of this church. Let me remind everyone, the First Amendment to our Constitution provides for Freedom of Religion. It is reasonable to be critical of anyone accused of shooting someone, but we should respect the religion of the many who belong to this church of denomination. We need to be careful not to step on others' rights. The church and the religion are not on trial. A wife will be on trial for the shooting.
Now for some e-mails:
E-mail No. 1
"Scott Peterson's Family Offers Reward For Laci's 'Real Killer'
Scott Peterson's family said Friday it is offering a $250,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the murder of his pregnant wife."
Do you happen to have The Peterson's phone number so I can call and collect the reward? I've got news for them: THEIR SON DID IT!
E-mail No. 2
I am a photographer in TN. Even though I work late hours, I try to always make it home in time to watch your show. I was thinking a couple of nights ago that I have been watching you on TV since the O.J. trial. You co-hosted another show right after the O.J. trial and I cannot, to save my life, remember the name of it. I watched it or recorded it as often as I could. Can you please tell me what the name of that show was? I hate that I can't remember.
ANSWER: "Burden of Proof" on CNN is the answer. I co-hosted it with Roger Cossack who now does work on ESPN. Roger is a great guy — he is like a brother to me.
E-mail No. 3
Ted Williams is a hoot. He's so rock-solid in his convictions that I almost feel like cheering when he gets fired up. I can never wait 'till it's time for Ted to speak his mind. He gets to the bare bones of an issue in no time flat and, without fail, makes an excellent point. Just let him know that he's sincerely appreciated — as are you Greta!
"Hillbilly At Large" (with apologies to Geraldo)
Finally, I pulled this out of our FOX computer last night. I suppose by now you know who lost the bet (California):
Governor Schwarzenegger and Florida Governor Jeb Bush Place Friendly Wager Over NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Game
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger placed a wager with Florida Governor Jeb Bush today over the outcome of tonight's NCAA men's basketball game, pitting the UCLA Bruins vs. the University of Florida Gators.
In the spirit of friendly competition, each governor will wager some of his respective state's finest products. Gov. Bush has wagered Gatorade, Florida stone crabs and lobsters and Key Lime pie. Gov. Schwarzenegger has put on the line some of California's tastiest agricultural products including:
• Zesty California avocados
• Crisp California asparagus
• Top quality canned California black olives
• Delicious California cling peaches
• Scrumptious canned California pears
• Tasty California cheese
• Healthy California chicken
• Juicy California grown lemons
• Fresh California grown oranges
• Sweet California grown strawberries
• A case of fine California wine
Should UCLA prevail, Gov. Schwarzenegger will donate the bounty from both states to the California National Guard troops and their families. If the Gators win, the Governor will send Florida the prize.
"California is the greatest state in the greatest country in the world," said Gov. Schwarzenegger. "Our state has the best public university system in the world and UCLA is the most successful men's college basketball program in history. I have no doubt that the Bruins will continue their tradition of basketball excellence in tonight's game."
Since taking office, Governor Schwarzenegger has made selling California a priority. He has personally appeared in television advertisements promoting California Grown agricultural products and California tourism. In addition, Governor Schwarzenegger has traveled overseas to encourage people to savor California by purchasing California products and traveling to California.
The Golden State is the No. 1 agricultural producer and exporter in the United States. In 2003, the value of agricultural goods produced by California's farmers and ranchers reached $27.8 billion. California's agricultural abundance includes 350 different crops. Among those, the state grows more than half of the nation's total of fruits, nuts and vegetables. Many of these commodities are specialty crops and almost solely produced in California.
For more information about California grown agricultural products, please visit www.californiagrown.org
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