Internet humming with Nacchio trial coverage

Blogs, Web sites rife with insight, info

Mar. 24, 2007

by David Kopel

Mainstream media coverage of law stories is often superficial, condescending and opaque. The good news is that the Denver media are starting to use the Web to produce much better legal coverage, as shown by this week's coverage of the opening of the Joe Nacchio trial.

Denver criminal defense lawyer and civil liberties advocate Jeralyn Merritt runs the weblog, which sets a great example of how to write about legal issues in an intelligent way while still connecting with readers who haven't gone to law school. Merritt has been live-blogging the Nacchio trial for 5280magazine's weblog, Elevated Voices. She provides a running semi-transcript of courtroom events, in far greater detail than you can find anywhere else while the court is in session. She doesn't attend every day of the trial, but when she's there, Elevated Voices is the best Web site for up-to-the minute coverage.

Thus far, the Rocky Mountain News'online coverage is better than The Denver Post's.Jeff Smith provides summaries several times a day of the courtroom events; they are not as detailed as what Merritt offers, but they are well-written and intelligent.

Rockyanalyst David Milstead leaves no doubt about what side he's on. He notes that he once described Qwest as "a slow-motion Enron." Because of his excellent command of the background facts in the Qwest case, he is adept at pointing out inconsistencies or weaknesses in the defense's arguments. For example, he noted how the defense was incorrectly trying to downplay Nacchio's role as chief executive, by showing the jury an organizational chart in which two other Qwest employees were (supposedly) on the same level as Nacchio.

The Post'sNacchio trial weblog is annoying to use. To move entry to entry, you have to return to the main page and wait for it to reload. On the Rockyweblog, titles of recent posts appear on the page for every blog entry, so you can just go directly to another entry.

The Postweblog of the courtroom activity tends toward very short items which provide little more than a general summary of events, without analysis. These small entries appear in small type in the middle of a template unrelated to the Nacchio case.

For example, as of about 10 a.m. on Thursday, the Post's morning update consisted of one paragraph stating that Judge Edward Nottingham was wearing a "natty" suit with a bow tie under his robes. The Rockymeanwhile, had an informative eight-paragraph summary of the cross-examination of Lee Wolfe, a witness for the prosecution. The Rockyalso supplied an analysis by Milstead suggesting that Wolfe's expertise on technical financial matters was making it fairly easy for him to parry questions from Nacchio's team.

The Postdid supply a more detailed item about Wolfe's testimony later that morning, but, confusingly, did not state whether that testimony came on cross-examination by the defense or on redirect by the prosecution.

As for Nacchio multimedia, the PostWeb site is far ahead of the Rocky; the Posteven has a video of Nacchio giving a corporate ethics speech to Qwest employees.

The Rockyand PostWeb sites both publish archives of important documents, such as the transcript of the opening arguments (not as timely as Merritt's running summaries, but more precise), and witness lists of the prosecution and defense. (But note that although the problem was later corrected, the Post'slink for the opening arguments transcript initially led only to an empty template.)

The comments sections in the media weblogs also offer important information to trial watchers. Especially for readers from outside Colorado, the comments demonstrate the very high level of antipathy toward Nacchio among many Coloradans. They also reveal that much of the antipathy involves issues that do not directly bear on Nacchio's alleged insider trading: his very high salary from Qwest; layoffs, shoddy business practices, and poor customer service at Qwest under his tenure; and the plunge in the value of Qwest stock (which the commenters almost never acknowledge was comparable in size to the plunge in value of companies like Level 3, which are not accused of any criminal conduct).

The comments indicate that the Nacchio defense team was wise to spend a lot of its time during jury selection querying potential jurors regarding their attitudes toward very high corporate executive pay.

The weblog with the most comments is RockyTalk Live, run by Mark Wolf of the Rocky. Wolf should be more proactive in deleting comments; a lot of space on the weblog has been taken up by two people who knew each other in high school, and who used the weblog to insult each other and argue, quite stupidly, about the Iraq war. It is a waste of readers' time to have to scan through this drivel in order to find meaningful comments about the Nacchio case.


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