What happens when the state of Nevada announces it intends to use its own photographer to cover the parole hearing of O.J. Simpson, and exclude all others?
The Associated Press steps up, rallies the media and forces the state to backtrack. The tale of how that came to pass is the story of the Beat of the Week.
Planning began months ago for covering the long-awaited hearing, when the former football star would plead to be released after serving his term for robbing two sports collectable dealers at gunpoint. Las Vegas reporter Ken Ritter, who has covered the case since Simpson was first arrested in 2007, was determined that the AP would be inside the hearing room when Simpson walked in – and in fact, Ritter was named as the text pool reporter at Lovelock prison while AP reporter Scott Sonner would be admitted to the hearing room in Carson City, where the parole commissioners were to conduct the hearing by video conference.
That’s when the trouble began.
Surprisingly, a communication in early July from the two public information officers (PIO) handling the hearings named state employees as the photographers. A phone call confirmed that the state intended to allow no media photographers into the hearing rooms and would instead offer handouts.
The public information officer laughed at the suggestion that the media would decline to run handout photos.
West Regional Photo Editor Stephanie Mullen immediately began a conversation with one of the PIOs, explaining why the state could not and should not restrict photo access; she came away with the impression that the issue had been resolved. Instead, the other PIO flatly refused to change the plan and said he could not be swayed. He even laughed at the suggestion that the media would decline to run handouts.
Nevada-Utah News Editor Tom Tait quickly emailed the top editors in Nevada, explaining the situation and seeking their support. It came quickly. USA Today and its legal counsel enlisted, as did the Gannett-owned Reno Gazette-Journal. Tait also contacted AP Legal Counsel Brian Barrett to consult on strategy and legal options.
Mullen contacted the PIO to share the unanimous opposition of Nevada’s top newspaper editors to a state-run pool. Again, he again refused to budge.
Tait and Mullen then approached editors in and out of state, seeking their signatures to a letter that would also include a pledge to not use any handout photos. It was signed by the AP, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Reno Gazette-Journal, Reuters, Nevada Press Association, European Press Association, Agence France-Presse, Las Vegas Sun, Nevada Appeal, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.
The obstinate PIO reacted angrily, but there followed lengthy conversations with Mullen and Tait. The PIO contacted the newspapers and press association to gauge support.
AP approached editors, seeking a pledge to not use any handout photos ... and the public information officer reluctantly named two newspaper pool photographers.
Three days before the hearing, he realized the press was serious and united in its opposition; he reluctantly named two northern Nevada newspapers to act as photo pools for the hearings. Mullen coached the two photographers, who were inexperienced with pool responsibilities.
While the state still shot photos, the quality images came from the media pool photographer and were used around the world. Member editors expressed their appreciation to the AP for leading the fight.
“Many thanks back to you for keeping the press free and getting us all together to be on the same page,” wrote Kelly Ann Scott, executive editor of the Gazette-Journal. “That’s like rounding up goldfish to swim in one direction.”
For their stalwart and successful campaign to ensure that the press would be allowed to do its work, Mullen, Ritter and Tait share this week’s $500 prize.