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Press and law: frequent adversaries find common ground

The American press and the US legal profession are still locking horns. But they manage to agree on one point: staunch support of the Constitution, particularly the freedom guarantees of the First Amendment.

Today media and bar clashes tend to center around implementation of rights, professional responsibility, and public access.

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In the wake of Watergate, the American Bar Assocation (ABA) was officially heralding the role of the press in uncovering abuse of power by top government officials, most of them lawyers. The press, in turn, allowed that there were times when the rule of law - as interpreted by courts and lawyers - worked extremely well in America.

But strained relations didn't disappear. And now they sometimes boil over into a clash of adversaries.

When the ABA scheduled a major panel at their annual conclave here on ''The American Journalist vs. The American Lawyer,'' it admittedly invited a verbal venting of hostilities. Those attending weren't disappointed.

Florida lawyer and former ABA president Chesterfield Smith threw down the gauntlet with an ominous prediction that if the media doesn't ''clean up its act ,'' the public is likely to trample on the First Amendment and sharply curtail press freedoms. Mr. Smith says that ''the majority of people in America no longer believe what they read in newspapers.'' His remedy for this credibility lapse: more responsible reporting, better decisions on what to report, and a higher sense of ethics among the media.

Expectedly, legal affairs reporters here took issue. Lyle Denniston of the Baltimore Sun says that recent court and legislative decisions have been chipping away at free press guarantees. ''The First Amendment is considerably narrower in its promise than in 1972,'' Mr. Denniston insists.

Denniston takes what many media representatives would consider an extreme view of press independence. He says there should be no limits on the media, governmental or otherwise. Newspapers should be able to print what they want, even unverified information. Their credibility will be judged by the public, he reasons.

To a suggestion that the press should adopt an official code of ethics, similar to that embraced by lawyers, National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg balks that sweeping standards would be unworkable. She points out that individual media organizations set up their own rules and require their reporters to abide by them.

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''We're different than lawyers, Miss Totenberg says. ''We're not licensed by the state. The Constitution gives us special protections.''

Steven Brill, editor of The American Lawyer, is also a staunch advocate of press freedoms. And he says that it is important that the media resist adopting rules of procedure. ''The press should not agree on anything,'' he explains. ''This is the whole point of the First Amendment.''

However, Mr. Brill - whose publication investigates business dealings of lawyers and sharply castigates those who allegedly deviate in their strict adherence to ethics - insists that the best protection journalists have are lawyers.

Miss Totenberg scores the ABA for what she calls its ''unenforceable'' code of ethics. She says the bar has standards, but they can only be effective when individual lawyers decide to abide by them.

Other complaints by journalists here of the legal profession include excessive secrecy, particularly in reference to information deemed by the press to be in the public interest; and reluctance to promptly discipline lawyers who are fraudulent or unethical in their dealings with clients.

On the other hand, some lawyers here express concern that the press wields excessive power - sometimes with little regard for rights of individuals. Texas trial lawyer -William E. Wright insists that there are too many ''superficial reporters'' and ''careless reporting.''

However, both press and bar representatives proclaim that a strong and independent legal system and judiciary, as well as a free press, are essential.

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