FW Star-Telegram editor: DFW media teams up for right to know

By Jim Witt
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published Feb. 18, 2014

In recent weeks, newspapers in Fort Worth and Dallas and the region’s four TV stations affiliated with the major broadcast networks did something they’ve never done before, at least since I became editor of the Star-Telegram in 1996.

We worked together to help protect open records and open hearings in the Texas judicial system.

On their own, each of the major media outlets in the DFW area — theStar-Telegram, The Dallas Morning News, KDFW/Channel 4, KXAS/Channel 5, WFAA/Channel 8 and KTVT/Channel 11 — have been staunch defenders of protecting the public’s right to know.

But this was the first time I can remember when we teamed up to make legal arguments in an effort to overturn government actions that we feel may have wrongly infringed on that right to know.

State District Judge Jean Boyd, who in December received intense national publicity after she gave teenager Ethan Couch 10 years’ probation and therapy for driving drunk and causing a crash that left four people dead, subsequently closed her courtroom to the public and the media three times — once for a hearing involving Couch and twice during an unrelated murder trial involving another teenager.

In that case, a 17-year-old was accused of beating a 16-year-old to death with a hammer. Boyd closed a pretrial hearing and another after the teen, who was a juvenile at the time of the beating, pleaded guilty.

According to the Texas Family Code, if a juvenile appearing in court is under 14 at the time of the proceeding, the judge must close the hearing unless it is determined that the interests of the child and the public would be better served by allowing an open hearing.

If the defendant is older, as in the Couch case, the law states that a juvenile court hearing should be open to the public “unless the court, for good cause shown, determines that the public should be excluded.”

Couch’s defense team requested his hearing be closed, but in the other case Boyd did not cite a reason when she closed her courtroom..

As I discussed what we might do with Tom Williams, an attorney with the Haynes and Boone law firm who has been our legal counsel for many years, I thought about asking the other major media players if they had any interest in joining us to file formal motions protesting closure of the court. All quickly agreed.

The media business has changed a lot in the past few years, making it much more palatable for longtime competitors to look at joining forces on things like this. It used to be that each of us would go it on our own and bear the expense of a legal fight, which can sometimes get quite pricey. These days, all of us have to watch our nickels and dimes more closely.

Plus, the changing landscape brought on by digital media has encouraged each of us to seek out partnerships with each other on various projects.

Over the years, the Star-Telegram has had formal partnerships with Channel 4, Channel 5 (twice), Channel 11 and The Dallas Morning News.

The only one we haven’t partnered with yet is Channel 8, because for a long time they and the Morning News were part of the same company, A.H. Belo Corp.

When Belo split into two companies — one for broadcast, the other for newspapers — they remained partners until recently, when the TV side was purchased by Gannett Co. The Morning News and Channel 5 are now partners.

We’ll report back to you as our legal encounter over the closed courtroom progresses. But no matter what happens, I believe it is a positive sign for the public’s right to know that the major media players are willing to work together when these issues arise.