Rough Justice

The trails of covering the Irvin case

As much as state District Judge Manny Alvarez loved the press coverage he got from presiding over the year's hottest celeb trial, he didn't much like press people. Apparently, if the camera isn't trained on the judge's indisputably cute face, the media just isn't doing much of anything that's important as far as the judge is concerned.

Alvarez reserved one, tiny back bench in the courtroom for reporters for the entire first week of the trial while the jury was being picked. And he would only allow seven reporters to sit on that bench--even when all the reporters agreed to squeeze in real tight, armpit to armpit, so that eight or nine people were slapped together, backsides half off the end of the bench.

Now, it's true that all the other benches were usually filled up with the 67 members of the jury pool--but there were plenty of times when jurors were being polled individually, leaving the entire spectator section empty. In those roomy circumstances, the judge still refused to let any of the reporters off the little bench.

The result was, of course, that about 20 reporters were having to vie for seven seats--a very humorless game of musical chairs played by a large ensemble of information-starved people from, to be specific, four local radio stations, four local TV stations, an Oklahoma TV station, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Observer, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Press, Reuters, ESPN, CNN, and Sports Illustrated.

As if that was not bad enough, Alvarez decided to turn the temperature up on this already testy situation by pandering to the hometown media monolith, A.H. Belo Corp., owner of WFAA-TV Channel 8 and the Morning News. (Seeing as how Alvarez is the only Republican judge with an opponent this November, we concede that this was a savvy move.) He did this by first making some obscure WFAA producer-researcher named P.J. Ward--affectionately known among the press corps as "P.J.-B.J." since no one could ever remember her name, only the brittle smile--the official bench bouncer.

She began her duties, auspiciously enough, on the very first morning of jury selection by demanding--very publicly and very nastily--that one of the most lamblike, most senior members of the Dallas press corps remove himself from the bench. That would be Jim Schutze, former columnist for the Dallas Times Herald and now the Dallas bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle.

Schutze had arrived 90 minutes earlier than any other reporter that morning specifically so that he could get a seat in the courtroom. In fact, he'd been the first person to sit down on the little bench. But later, when the bench filled up and all the seats were taken, P.J.-B.J. surveyed the scene and singlehandedly decided Schutze had to go.

"Everyone was sitting here, and she got down on her knees and said, 'We've worked this out, and what we've decided is you have to leave,'" Schutze recalls her saying to him. "And I was thinking, 'Is this a street person who has come in here? Who is this person? And who is we?'"

Schutze explained, no--he wasn't leaving. "P.J. looked at me, and she basically said, 'Look, I can put you out of here.'"

P.J.-B.J. pulled rank on everybody for about two days--which was about how long it took for everybody to figure out that they had a mother and didn't need another. At one point, when a confused reporter asked P.J.-B.J. why in the world Channel 8 thought it had the right to determine whether its competitors got access to the story, P.J.-B.J. smirked, "Because people trust Channel 8 to be fair."

Just about the time when P.J.-B.J. began to be ignored, the Morning News, sensing that a Belo bloodbath was close at hand, decided to take matters into its own capable hands. A News editor promptly dispatched the paper's courthouse reporter, a perfectly nice, unassuming fellow named Steve Scott, to obtain special dispensation from the judge himself.

"Do we have a seat or not?" Scott told me he asked the judge.
"Yes," Alvarez replied. And from that minute on, 19 other reporters from throughout the country rotated six seats--and the Morning News had the seventh.

"This is Dallas," P.J.-B.J. told me in one of her last, dying breaths as dictator. "And the Morning News is going to be in there."

Such is life in a one-newspaper town. It's just never been so obvious as it was at the Michael Irvin trial. "I'm just going to be realistic and start calling Langer and asking his permission to cover stuff," Schutze said, referring to News Executive Editor Ralph Langer. "'You know, Mr. Langer, there's a big fire, and I'd like to go to it. But I don't want to get in the way of anything.'"

Actually, Dallas should be very proud of its individual press corps members. All the reporters were very mannerly and helpful to their brethren, and everyone except the ESPN reporter, a curt little number from Los Angeles, was generous about rotating the coveted six slots.

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