Sadly, Once-So-Vibrant Florida Media Law Conference Is Not Anymore
Around the State
Back in the Jurassic Journalism Day, The Florida Bar’s Media Law Conference was a national venue of choice for lawyers, judges and journalists who were serious about making their “separate, yet equally important groups” better serve the public.
In the Conference’s early years, it was painfully fresh in the minds of Floridians that it had taken a young St. Petersburg Times reporter named Martin Dyckman to give the Florida Supreme Court a badly-needed ethics enema. Two justices were forced off the court and a third obliged to take a sanity test as a result of Mr. Dyckman’s reporting.
Embarrassed at the legal profession’s failure to keep its own house in order, a string of post-Watergate Florida Bar presidents worked hard to restore public trust, in part by keeping the lines of communication to the Watchdog Estate well-lubricated.
Always on the prowl for opportunities to work sources, Florida’s editors and publishers were happy to help the Bar build the Conference into a Brigadoon for constitutional junkies.
Gray-haired eminences and rookie hires from both professions gathered each year by the hundreds to see journalism giants like Fred Friendly, Katharine Graham and Abe Rosenthal mix it up with legal heavies like Rosemary Barkett and Professor Charles Ogletree. The Bar took pride in celebrating the shared values that bind those who make the news and those who report it.
Steve Zack, now president of the American Bar Association, was among the Florida Bar presidents who opened their homes for pre-Conference dinners. The unflappable Rosanne Dunkelberger, now the executive editor of Tallahassee Magazine, was a rising Bar star and staff liaison to the Media Law Conference and kept the conversation going all year long.
Today, the Conference is on life support; the classrooms at the Tampa campus of Stetson Law School were way too big for last week’s anemic attendance.
The world works better when newspeople and newsmakers interact intensely, and with all five senses, in noisy, crowded, impossible-to-ignore venues like the Conference used to be. We’re on our fourth or fifth generation of people in the business of making and reporting news who have no idea how to talk to each other, even in small settings free of microphones and name badges.
The late Sen. Jim King was among the last of Florida’s alpha-newsmakers who was unafraid to engage in unpressured, alcohol-soaked sessions with people who buy ink by the barrel. The think-and-drinks often occurred in his office at the Capitol, where the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner Lucy Morgan had no reluctance to peruse the surface of his desk and occasionally the contents of his wastebasket.
In a functioning society, such engagements are normal. The borders between newsmakers and newspeople are porous, but everybody knows where the boundaries are. Nobody confuses talking turkey with being in the tank.
These days, Media Law Conferences and barroom bull sessions have been replaced with a taxpayer-supported army of flacks whose job it is to inflate their bosses' egos while shielding them from reporters bearing impertinent questions.
Perhaps that’s why four decades after Mr. Dyckman took a broom to the judicial branch, it was up to another Times reporter -- not surprisingly, Mrs. Morgan -- to expose the moral bankruptcy court known as the Taj Mahal.
The decline of informal, interprofessional cocktail chats and big bang cross-cultural bashes like the Media Law Conference coincides with the gathering storm of assaults on the independence of the judiciary and a public that doesn’t much seem to care.
It’s not a coincidence.
Florence Snyder is a corporate lawyer. She also consults on ethics and First Amendment issues. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.