Calhoun: Wake-Up Call


As told to Patricia Calhoun, by Patricia Calhoun

If you think it's embarrassing to be caught in a checkout line with nothing but a lime and four supermarket tabloids -- and indeed it is, even if the tabs are all for work! Really! -- imagine being caught testifying on behalf of one of those publications in open court.

Which, according to reliable sources, I did last Thursday before Jefferson County Chief District Judge Henry Nieto.

I'd been called as an expert witness by lawyers representing the Globe and editor Craig Lewis to discuss journalism in general -- not the Globe's particular brand of journalism. Thanks to my recent reading of the tab (for work! Really!), however, I now am also an expert on such topics as Prince William's new fox-hunting hobby and Katie Couric's secret romance and Clint Eastwood's disappearing varicose veins and Oprah's suicide note. And, of course, on recent developments in the JonBenét Ramsey case, a case that the tabs have kept alive for the past 34 months but which is relegated to a modest spot on page 45 of the Globe's current issue. (It still rates the cover of the National Enquirer.) Under the headline "JonBenet: Governor's Secret Plan to Nail Ramseys" and beside a picture of an eyes-closed Bill Owens (perhaps preparing to channel Jesse Ventura in advance of his "no-Ramsey-special-prosecutor" press conference on October 27) is this Globe scoop:

"The Governor of Colorado had a secret reason for blasting John and Patsy Ramsey and accusing them of blocking the investigation into the death of JonBenet, say insiders. Gov. Bill Owens became certain cops were right to concentrate on the Ramseys as main suspects, a source says, and hatched a plan to put the couple under so much pressure that they'll tell all!

"'He's convinced they've been using their wealth to dodge an indictment,' says a source. 'But from now on, he's going to put the squeeze on them so tight that they'll crack like eggshells!'"

There wasn't much cracking -- of eggshells, heads or cases -- in Nieto's courtroom on November 4. While dozens of reporters gathered outside the courthouse in preparation for that afternoon's action concerning eleven-year-old Raoul, the Swiss outdoor-urination expert, the audience for the Globe arguments consisted of a few interested journalists (not Lewis, however), several very interested lawyers and a Red Rocks Community College class getting a lesson in justice, Jeffco style. And the topic being considered was a far cry from the more sensational, tabloid-worthy sexual-assault discussions that would emerge in Raoul's case. The discussion before Judge Nieto focused on the First Amendment -- and as insiders and outsiders alike can tell you, that stuff doesn't sell newspapers.

It just makes newspapers possible.

The Globe's motion had interrupted the work of the Jefferson County grand jury, which has been exploring "information-brokering." So far, the grand jury's work has resulted in indictments of James and Regana Rapp, two private investigators charged with using illicit means to gather information on celebrities, as well as Thomas Miller. He's the former lawyer accused of introducing Lewis to the handwriting expert the Ramseys hired to study the ransom note found at their home the morning JonBenét was reported missing. And why did the expert even have a copy of that note? Because the Ramseys had been given one by Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter.

The Ramseys are still suspects in the murder of their daughter, according to Boulder authorities (not to mention tough-talking Bill Owens). Craig Lewis is not a suspect in that murder -- but he's still the focus of a Jeffco grand jury that could indict him under the state's criminal bribery statute for reportedly attempting to buy a copy of the ransom note from the handwriting expert for $30,000. In the process of allegedly doing so, Jeffco argues, Lewis was inducing an employee to break confidentiality with an employer and so is guilty of criminal bribery.

But the Globe's lawyers claim that the state statute is unconstitutional when applied to working journalists -- which the court has stipulated that both the Globe and Lewis are, whether or not more staid media outlets agree. If the statute can be used against a supermarket tabloid that may or may not have offered up $30,000 for a note that Hunter was giving away for free, they point out, what's to stop another DA from using it against a local TV reporter who may have bought a source a beer? Or a print reporter who may have promised confidentiality in exchange for information? The criminal bribery statute prohibits offering "any benefit," not just big cash incentives.

The Globe's attorneys first made their arguments in U.S. District Court last month, putting any potential Lewis indictments on hold; in late October, Judge Walker Miller kicked the constitutionality issue back to state court. In the meantime, Owens's own pronouncements on the Ramseys made the tabloids seem tame -- and the Globe itself had become somewhat more respectable, having been purchased by the same New York investment group that bought the National Enquirer last spring but also consults with CBS and Dow Jones. Defendants in First Amendment cases rarely are Wall Street types, however, and you can't pick your fights based on the press's pedigree.You simply have to fight them all.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun