I wasn’t at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Saturday morning March 5th more than five minutes when I heard my name called. As I saw a tall man with a smiling, familiar face striding towards me, my first reaction was “What’s Matt Lait doing here?” Matt Lait is half of a well-known and respected investigative team from the Los Angeles Times. But then, I thought, “Of course!” Lait is the ideal Fellow for the Peter Jennings Project: an experienced and knowledgeable journalist who often encounters complex legal issues in the process of his reporting. He was there for the same reason I had attended as a Fellow a year earlier: the Project is one of the few places where mid-career journalists can focus on our craft, examining what part constitutional issues play in the stories we tackle everyday. Where else can you hear de Tocqueville quoted regularly?
It also offers the unusual opportunity to hear and converse with national figures on an intimate, off –the-record basis. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. Judge Judith Kaye. Jeff Greenfield. I met Matt Lait a year earlier when I was working on the case of Bruce Lisker, a man who was convicted of killing his mother in 1983. Lait and his colleague Scott Glover, who investigated the case for years, raised serious questions about how the lead LAPD detective did the original investigation and the evidence he presented in trial, and later, at a parole hearing. Their series of reports in the newspaper helped lead to Lisker’s release from prison in the fall of 2009. He now, like all of us, will have to dissect and analyze issues that were highlighted during this year’s conference: the rights of suspected terrorists and local laws dealing with nation issues like immigration.
Americans live in an ever increasingly complex world where law and legal principles play a vital part. You need to understand them and be conversant in the terms of art to report accurately and effectively.