In a change of station policy, WKRN-Channel 2 has refused to turn over to local prosecutors a segment of tape broadcast on Channel 2 that may be needed as evidence in a vehicular homicide case.
The tape shows Susan McLamb, allegedly intoxicated, shortly after an automobile accident in which she allegedly struck and killed 9-year-old Asif Ghanem on Murfreesboro Road last November. Assistant District Attorney Colin Carnahan said the tape may be used at trial to prove that McLamb was drunk.
Channels 4 and 5 also broadcast tape of McLamb at the scene. Unlike Channel 2, both 4 and 5 have complied with the district attorney’s subpoena, Carnahan said.
A spokesman for Channel 2 acknowledged that the station had previously complied with all subpoenas for material that had been publicly broadcast. But because of the increasing number of such requests and the availability of the tapes from private copying services, the station has now decided to fight the subpoena, the spokesman said.
Channel 2 attorney Doug Pierce said the state’s “shield law” arguably prohibits prosecutors from obtaining copies of tapes even after the material has been broadcast. As a matter of policy, however, all three local stations have consistently provided law enforcement authorities copies of broadcast tapes. Pierce and other media lawyers are unaware of any Tennessee cases extending the shield law to cover information that has been aired on television.
Carnahan said his office was surprised by Channel 2’s attitude but that prosecutors intend to enforce the subpoena.
Pierce will have a tough time in court. Although the shield law protects “any information...procured for publication or broadcast,” the station likely waived its statutory protection once it aired the tape.
But the station’s change of heart is a bad idea for other reasons. That tape is now evidence in a high-profile homicide case in which there is substantial public sympathy for the victim and his family. It makes no sense to offend prosecutors, the police, and perhaps the public by refusing to cooperate with a reasonable request from law enforcement officials.
If the station wants to expand the shield law to include broadcast information, they should pick another case.
Cure in Oak Ridge?
Already accused, both locally and nationally, of making over-hyped, misleading allegations that a “mysterious pattern of illnesses” afflicts some people in Oak Ridge, The Tennessean has yet to report findings that appear to refute one of the newspaper’s more dramatic claims.
In November 1997, Tennessean reporters Susan Thomas, Laura Frank, and Anne Paine claimed to have found 16 children suffering from “constant and severe” respiratory illnesses on a single residential block in the Scarboro neighborhood near the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation. Four of the children “are so sick they must sometimes rely on special, medicine-pumping machines to help them breathe,” the reporters wrote.
The newspaper’s findings seemed to be confirmed last summer when investigators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a higher-than-average number of children in Scarboro had suffered from “physician-diagnosed asthma” during the past year. Although the CDC itself cautioned that these figures were “preliminary” and that the children would be tested further, The Tennessean trumpeted the news and has repeatedly cited the CDC statistics as evidence that there is a “disturbingly high” rate of illness in the area.
As recently as November 19, Frank and Thomas wrote again that CDC had found the rate of asthma in Scarboro to be “twice the national average” and criticized the federal agency for not moving faster to complete its investigation and determine whether there are “abnormally high numbers” of sick people in Oak Ridge.
Perhaps the CDC got the message. Although the agency’s final, written report won’t be released for another month, CDC and state health officials announced findings of a “snapshot” physical examination two weeks ago at a public meeting in Oak Ridge.
As reported the next day in both The Oak Ridger and the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the Scarboro children are “generally healthy” and no more sick than “any other group of children that might be seen in a pediatrician’s office.” State health officials said their study of the neighborhood included the same 16 children identified by The Tennessean. The officials also emphasized, however, that the results were “single point in time information” and that they “could not say with this one examination whether [the children] did or did not have asthma,” according to The Oak Ridger story.
As of this Tuesday, not a word about the “snapshot” results had appeared in The Tennessean.
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