Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
Imagine being hauled into court, led to the witness stand, being sworn in and facing an aggressive, adversarial attorney.
“Sir, please tell the court what you have done wrong.”
Say what? What have I done wrong? What’s he talking about? I haven’t done anything wrong.
“Sir, we are waiting. Please list all the things you have done wrong — and while you’re at it, give us the evidence.”
You’re in a courtroom, not standing before God for a final accounting.
The attorney grows impatient. “C’mon, spill your guts.”
Such a scenario might seem preposterous in our courts system, where a person is accused of wrongdoing only when there is sufficient evidence to pursue the matter.
But this unthinkable scenario roughly reflects an issue before the Nevada Supreme Court: Should a journalist who is being targeted in a smear campaign have to defend herself even if there is no evidence that she’s done something wrong?
At issue is a case involving Jeff Guinn, the son of the late-Gov. Kenny Guinn, who is being sued by investors over financial dealings. The story has been aggressively reported by Dana Gentry, executive producer of “Face to Face With Jon Ralston,” a public affairs TV show produced under the auspices of this newspaper. Guinn’s attorneys are requesting documents from Gentry to prove that her reporting was corrupted because she has been influenced with personal favors to pursue the story.
Those attorneys haven’t presented any evidence of their own to make that case. So the playful scenario at the beginning of this editorial is in fact playing out. This is the perfect example of begging the question, to make a statement based on a false premise, such as, “Sir, when did you stop beating your wife?”
Properly, and because Guinn’s attorneys have provided no evidence to support their claims, District Judge Allan Earl last year rejected their subpoena to compel Gentry to turn over this unidentified evidence that they claim exists.
But rather than put up or shut up, the attorneys have appealed to the state Supreme Court. Guinn’s attorneys want nothing less than to impede the news-gathering process by being allowed to spuriously insinuate that a journalist is guilty of impropriety, without providing evidence to support their claim.
In his brief, Gentry’s attorney, Don Campbell, wrote that if the Supreme Court were to allow Guinn’s attorneys to bully Gentry “in absence of any evidence supporting a demonstrable claim of need, it would impose an enormous disincentive upon journalists to vigorously pursue stories in their efforts to further public interest and debate of controversial subjects.”
Indeed, if the court caves to Guinn’s attorneys, it will be a gross overreach and violation of the Nevada shield law, which among other things protects reporters from having to disclose the sources of their information. (And, in fact, Guinn’s attorneys have not asked for a single correction or retraction involving Gentry’s reporting on their client’s case.)
Guinn’s attorneys had other opportunities to make their case, including accepting Judge Earl’s invitation to prove to him, in a private evidentiary hearing, that the information they sought was an absolute necessity. But they didn’t. And why not?
“The answer to this question is as simple as it is damning: The Petitioners had no evidence to present because their charges of journalistic corruption on the part of Ms. Gentry were fabricated,” Campbell wrote.
Instead, in their effort to grasp at straws, the attorneys are attempting to tamper with the shield law, an inappropriate target in their flailing efforts to intimidate a journalist.
The Supreme Court should have little problem dispatching this nuisance piece of legal hijinks. Send the attorneys back to District Court, where they should produce whatever evidence they think they have to suggest Gentry’s reporting was tainted. Lacking it, they need to respect the Fourth Estate, even if they are uncomfortable with reporting that is both aggressive and accurate.