Distinguished HLS Grads Discuss Law and Journalism


An interview with Prof. Noah Feldman last Thursday kicked off a busy schedule of events for writer and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin ’86, who also participated in the panel “Covering the Story

The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin ’86, Fox News’ Lis Wiehl ’87, and author James B. Stewart ’76 offered very distinct perspectives in last Thursday’s panel, “Lawyers in the World of Journalism,” on how the media should look at the law. Moderated by Professor Noah Feldman, himself a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, the three lawyer-journalists discussed topics ranging from celebrity trials to writing for non-lawyers.

Each of the panelists had a background in journalism before entering law school, and each returned to the profession after being in and out of practice. Stewart edited his college paper and worked for the Record while at HLS. After graduating, he worked for Cravath, Swaine, & Moore LLP before deciding that he preferred to be known as a writer. Stewart left to work for the then-nascent American Lawyer, noting that HLS made public that he was then earning the lowest salary in his graduating class.

Wiehl was on the staff of the Ladies Home Journal when she was accepted to HLS. She worked for a firm in Seattle before deciding to plunge back into journalism. An HLS professor put her in touch with the law editor of the New York Times, and she wrote for that paper before becoming a federal prosecutor. After a brief stint as a law professor, she was hired by NPR’s “All Things Considered” before finally moving to Fox News.

Toobin wore a similar path. Both his parents were journalists, and emphatically hoped he would not become one. He went to law school, but started freelancing for The New Republic. He worked as a clerk and then as a junior prosecutor handling the Iran-Contra controversy before feeling compelled to write a book about his experiences. He then spent three years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, before being hired by New Yorker editor David Remnick. Toobin has remained at the magazine, and subsequently became the first television legal analyst, appearing on ABC and CNN. The frenzied nature with which the media covers celebrity entanglements with the law was one of the sticking points of the conversation. Stewart pointed out that famous trials sweep up social issues that Americans invariably care about, like race. He noted that this has not changed over time, but the way the media hypes such events has.

Wiehl observed that cable news, in particular, had come to saturate the market. Still, Wiehl defended her network’s breathless coverage of such cases. “We really do get the television we deserve,” she explained. “It’s a business.” No one would watch stories about lurid trials without an interest in them, she claimed. Toobin was less sanguine. “I personally felt like every minute I spent covering the Scott Peterson case would be subtracted from my life,” he remarked. Still, he claimed, he was “not a snob” and loved certain celebrity trials. O.J. Simpson’s in particular, he said, appealed to both “high and low” audiences with its mix of celebrity gawking and serious, race-related issues.

Nevertheless, he remarked, most hyped-up trials are less worthy of coverage. The Anna Nicole Smith trial, for example, was “crack for television.” When he did cover such trials, Toobin said, he felt compelled to “invest some of the sleazy stuff with a level of intelligence”.

Still, after Toobin complained about CNN’s declining ratings, Feldman butted in: “Lis [of Fox News] has millions of viewers”. He observed that “it’s all sex and race. Money helps,” and later added that no one watched the Saddam Hussein trial because it “didn’t have sex, didn’t have race, and didn’t have an uncertain outcome”.

The legal journalists’ opinions also diverged when Feldman asked them how they framed legal issues for non-lawyers. Wiehl said she looked for the “bottom line, takeaway” issues behind each case. Toobin professed his need to drum up interest in the events he discussed. In “the New Yorker, I feel like I’m writing for 1Ls,” he said, “smart people who don’t have legal training.” On CNN, he puts more effort into explaining the importance of the issue at hand, because it’s “a more passive thing to watch television”.

Stewart said that he tried to excite the reader. “What I try to do is dramatize these things,” he explained, and said that he tried to get readers to learn things they wouldn’t otherwise care about. He noted that he took care to provide illustrative examples such as one of a “Cravath associate who flew across the International Date Line and billed 27 hours in a day.”

The differences in the journalists’ perspectives were well apparent by the time they received a question about whether sources could remain “off the record”. Toobin was careful to note that “the best way to keep something off the record is to not say it in the first place.” Wiehl dismissed the question. “I don’t run into people not wanting to be on the record,” she said. “They want to be on TV.” The group did manage to concur that their coverage did not necessarily have much influence over the “court of public opinion”. Wiehl observed that people have preexisting opinions, and that 50% of her viewers would “hate [her] anyway,” despite what she said. Feldman noted that the official result of the O.J. Simpson trial did not prevent “different legal narratives” from emerging in the general public.

The panel ended by providing advice to law students who might want to go into journalism. Wiehl emphasized connections – and luck. “You can’t necessarily plan” for life, she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to eat for dinner…keep your eyes open for opportunities.” Toobin offered slightly more practical advice: “you have to write and get stuff published…it matters less where it’s published than that it is,” he said. He also claimed that writing could be surprisingly difficult.

Stewart concurred: “it’s like writing an exam,” he said, before Toobin replied, “for a living”. The two thought the future of journalism was secure, though they disagreed as to whether this meant that law students going into journalism should look to the internet. “I don’t want to [work] for nothing,” said Toobin. “The number of readers that an average blog has,” he declared, “is one.”

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