The 50,000-circulation, family-owned Durham daily plays a complicated role in the Peterson trial, being in the unique position of having employed the defendant, who wrote a regular column for the metro pages for several years. The paper dropped Peterson’s column when he decided to pursue the mayor’s seat in 1999, and declined to resume it afterwards. That decision, in the wake of the revelation that the novelist had lied about his war record, generated some ill will on Peterson’s side that may explain, at least in part, why Rudolf and his client don’t talk to Herald-Sun reporters or columnist Tom Gasparoli much, Managing Editor Bill Stagg admits. The strained relationship, in turn, may influence the paper’s coverage.
“There’s a real risk there, that they take, that the information in columns and stories will be one-sided,” Stagg says, noting that the paper has made “very many good faith efforts” to give the defense opportunities to comment.
Herald-Sun editors have also taken a lead role in pre-trial arguments, advocating aggressively for the First Amendment when the defense sought to limit access to some records and proceedings. Being the hometown daily paper also means taking a blow-by-blow approach to the story. The paper will send two reporters to the courthouse every day — court beat staffer John Stevenson and one other in a slot that rotates as beats allow, as well as columns by Gasparoli, who has been bumped up from two weekly columns to three for the duration.
John Stevenson, Staff Writer
With two decades on the civil and criminal court beat, Stevenson serves as the lead writer on the Peterson trial, though other reporters fill in feature stories and a variety of sidebars. Among the reporting staff, Stevenson also holds the longest tenure in the Herald-Sun newsroom, by far. He isn’t often in the newsroom, though, as he’s usually hanging out in the fourth-floor courthouse lounge, working sources and drinking coffee. Stevenson isn’t known for winning writing awards, but he’s respected among the courthouse regulars, including the judge who’s handling the Peterson case. A Penn State grad who worked at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot before coming to the Herald-Sun, Stevenson has experience covering several of Durham’s high-profile murder trials, including the racially charged case of white Durham homeowner Michael Seagroves, who shot and killed a black teen-aged intruder in 1993, and the murder trial of drunken-driver Timothy Earl Blackwell in 1998. In addition to covering the court system as a journalist, Stevenson for years ran a side business publishing a legal newsletter that detailed Durham trials for an audience of local attorneys–an enterprise even Stevenson (who has since sold the business) admits “might have been seen as a conflict of interest.” On May 6, in the heat of a pre-trial hearing in the Peterson case, Stevenson dodged a conflict of a different sort. When defense attorney David Rudolf began calling reporters to testify, Stevenson split moments before he was summoned to the witness box, leaving Deputy Managing Editor Rocky Rosen to explain sheepishly from the audience that Stevenson had suddenly become ill.
Tom Gasparoli, Columnist
A former broadcast reporter, “Gaspo” replaced Peterson as a freelance Herald-Sun columnist in early 2000. Since Kathleen Peterson died, Gasparoli has carved such a niche in the media coverage that jurors were asked as part of their screening questionnaire whether they read his column. Gasparoli has nailed several key scoops, including an April 16, 2003, interview with the former nanny who discovered the body of Peterson family friend Elizabeth Ratliff at the bottom of a staircase in Germany in 1985. The columnist has broken so many firsts on the prosecution side that his work has fueled accusations of an anti-Peterson bias, though his editors credit his investigative reporting skills.
Gasparoli, who holds a masters degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, has a habit of injecting himself aggressively into the stories he’s covering, according to reports from his previous market. In Minneapolis, Gasparoli earned broadcast awards and the nickname “Tabloid Tom” while also generating occasional headlines in the daily and alternative newspapers for his various journalistic exploits, including placing a personals ad to lure interview subjects for a piece about dating. Gasparoli was also involved in a high-profile libel suit, where he and his CBS affiliate were sued for defaming a woman by accusing her of killing her husband in 1994, even though she was never charged with the crime. A jury ruled that though the station falsely accused her, it did not act with malice, and no damages were awarded.
The News & Observer
The capital city’s 160,000-circulation paper has focused its Peterson coverage on providing a broad perspective on issues as they surface, says Durham Editor James Eli Shiffer. The News & Observer, which is owned by the McClatchy chain, has also advocated for the public process, protesting the sealing of the Elizabeth Ratliff autopsy report and joining The Herald-Sun in pre-trial motions regarding open hearings and access to jury questionnaires. Peterson’s attempts to block the paper’s May 4 story about his Vietnam tour (see accompanying article) was the second such battle between the novelist and the Raleigh newspaper. A front-page story in 1999 exposed that the then-candidate for mayor had lied about his war record for three decades, including a false claim of earning a Purple Heart and being injured in combat.
Shiffer, who runs the Durham bureau, and several Raleigh-based editors are coordinating the paper’s coverage of the trial, relying primarily on Durham courts reporter Demorris Lee and Raleigh-based general assignment reporter Craig Jarvis, with occasional pieces by staff columnists.
Demorris Lee, Staff Writer, Durham courts
After working at smaller papers in rural North Carolina, Lee joined the N&O staff six years ago. A graduate of Durham’s N.C. Central University and president of the Triangle chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, Lee covered local government in North Raleigh and sports for the N&O before taking over the Durham courthouse job two years ago, serving as the day-to-day point person on the Peterson trial. Like the Herald-Sun’s John Stevenson, Lee is a fixture in the courthouse hallways. The ex-Marine makes such a point of knowing all the players in a trial that he’ll lean over to an unfamiliar face in the audience and ask point-blank who they are and why they’re there, sometimes without bothering to introduce himself first.
Somewhat to his chagrin, and over the objections of the N&O’s lawyer, Lee was forced to become a player in one of his own stories on May 6, when defense attorney David Rudolf called him to the stand to testify about when he received a copy of the juror questionnaire.
Craig Jarvis, Staff Writer, general assignment
Jarvis, 50, has written for the N&O for nine years, covering crime and courts before taking his current plum position as a general assignment reporter. After writing for several small papers in Northern California, and before joining the N&O staff, Jarvis took three years away from journalism to work as an investigator for a public defender’s office in the Bay area.
His recent projects have included an in-depth look at statewide day-care safety violations and a series of stories chronicling last year’s Miss North Carolina controversy.
Most recently, Jarvis delivered a powerful front-page narrative about Peterson’s Vietnam experience, including first-person accounts from other soldiers who defended a tiny outpost with him in 1969, and details about a friendly-fire incident that killed two men serving under Lt. Peterson at the time.
WTVD-TV 11 (ABC)
The news director at the Durham-based station jokes that his staff has one major logistical advantage over all the other broadcasters covering the Peterson trial–his station is walking distance from the courthouse. WTVD has a team of about a dozen people working both on-air and off, says Rob Elmore, including reporters Sonya Pfeiffer and Emily Lopez and anchor Katina Rankin. The station will broadcast news reports as needed, pulling in various experts and analysts in law enforcement and criminal justice, and may air some testimony live, Elmore says.
Sonya Pfeiffer, Reporter
A graduate of Ohio University, Pfeiffer came to WTVD three years ago via a circuitous route that included stints as a consumer and investigative reporter in Omaha, Neb., and a freelance journalist in Paris, where she covered the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Dayton peace accords. She’s the station’s lead reporter on the Peterson trial, where she has scored several exclusives, including an interview with Elizabeth Ratliff’s daughter the day before the autopsy report revealed that Ratliff had been murdered 18 years ago.
WRAL-TV 5 (CBS) and WRAZ-TV (FOX) 50
The sister stations, both owned by Capital Broadcasting in Raleigh, have been planning comprehensive Peterson trial coverage for eight months. In addition to news reports from Durham reporter Julia Lewis and others on the scene at the courthouse, WRAL will broadcast the court proceedings “gavel-to-gavel” on its digital satellite channel and via video-streaming at www.wral.com. Viewers can also sign up for daily trial updates via e-mail and interact in real time with legal experts via the web during on-line and broadcast forums.
Julia Lewis, Reporter
A 10-year veteran of WRAL, Lewis has worked behind and in front of the camera as a reporter and assignment editor. After taking over the Durham beat three years ago, Lewis covered Peterson while he was running for city council in 2001, a reporter-source relationship that she says helped her get one-on-one interviews with him after his arrest. A graduate of Sweet Briar College, Lewis recently traveled to the Persian Gulf as an embedded journalist with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg during the invasion of Iraq. In the competition for scoops in the Peterson case, Lewis was the first reporter on the scene when police detectives searched the Peterson house for the third time, a tip she attributes to “a very big source.”
News 14 Carolina (Time Warner)
The Time Warner Cable news channel joined the Triangle’s broadcast media market last year. With bureaus in Raleigh, Durham (which also covers Chapel Hill), Fayetteville and Goldsboro, News 14 provides local news, sports and weather 24 hours a day. The station is planning Peterson stories as trial developments warrant, relying predominantly on the reporting of Tim Boyum, who is monitoring the day-to-day proceedings.
Tim Boyum, Reporter, Durham/Chapel Hill
Among the broadcast reporters in the Peterson courtroom, Boyum is the most recent newcomer, since his station didn’t even exist the night Kathleen Peterson died. A graduate of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, Boyum joined News 14 early last year, a few weeks before the station launched its first broadcast on March 22, 2002. He came to Durham from an NBC affiliate in Eureka, Calif., where his experience included covering the high-profile case of two Eureka residents who were murdered, along with an Argentinean friend, while sightseeing in Yosemite National Park in 1999.
NBC 17 (NBC)
The local NBC affiliate did a quick juggle of its Peterson coverage just before the trial began, when award-winning reporter Jala Anderson took a leave of absence from the station. Anderson was the lead staffer on the story for more than a year, and had netted several notable scoops, including the first interview with Michael Peterson’s children shortly after the murder, in which they proclaimed their father’s innocence. Interim News Director Ralph Robinson declined to discuss Anderson’s employment situation, but says the station will cover the story as aggressively as planned, using anchor Doug Bell and reporters Donald Jones and Kim Genardo. NBC 17 will also broadcast the daily trial proceedings on the web, at www.nbc17.com.