The tale of two trials

Pub date April 12, 2011
WriterBob Butler

Since March 21, reporters representing the cream of American journalism have been camped out in the Bay Area covering two high-profile trials.

In an Oakland courtroom, two men are accused of being involved in three murders, including that of Chauncey Bailey, a journalist who was writing a story about Your Black Muslim Bakery. In San Francisco, baseball home run king Barry Bonds is accused of telling a federal grand jury that he never knowingly took steroids.

Apart from the fact that both trials are taking place simultaneously and all the defendants are African American, there is a disparity in how these cases are being treated by the media, both local and national.

The Bailey trial is being covered by fewer than a dozen reporters from mostly local media: the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, KTVU, American Urban Radio Networks, CBS Radio, NPR, the Guardian, the Associated Press, ABC 7 News, several websites, and bloggers. Some are there every day, others are not. To be fair, there was more media coverage for the first few days of the trial.

According to KCBS reporter Doug Sovern, who is covering the Bonds trial, the press list includes “KCBS, KGO Radio (some of the time), KQED (occasionally), Westwood One, Channels 2 (KTVU), 4, 5, 7, 11, Comcast Sports Net, ESPN, CNN, Bloomberg, the Associated Press, Agency France Presse, the Chronicle (a reporter and a columnist every day; sometimes two columnists,) the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Bay Area News Group (including the San Jose Mercury News), Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, a few other bloggers, stringers, and people I don’t recognize,” writes Sovern in an e-mail. “I would say that adds up to about 30, plus still photographers. Probably close to 40 in all, plus THREE sketch artists!”

Media experts say the Bailey trial is far more significant when you look at how both cases affect society.

“Obviously Barry Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players of all time,” said Louis Freedberg, senior reporter for California Watch, one of the units at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley. “You add to that the celebrity factor in a society that is completely obsessed with celebrities, regardless if they do good or bad, I can see how it’s easy to define this (Bailey) as a local story and shunt it aside.”

But the problem is that society depends on journalists to provide truth and information and to hold those in power accountable. There are many countries where journalists are arrested and/or killed for writing stories that someone doesn’t like.

An independent press was a top priority for America’s founding fathers, right behind establishing the military.

“Establishing a free press was viewed as fundamental,” said Freedberg. “I don’t think they talked about baseball players at that time, so when you have a journalist being assassinated, that strikes at the core of what this society stands for — or should stand for.”

That belief was so strong after Bailey was killed that journalists, including the author, came together to form the Chauncey Bailey Project to finish Bailey’s work and make sure that everyone who was involved in the assassination was brought to justice.

“Some media are covering this deeply — the ones that covered it here — so I don’t want to make a blanket condemnation. But, yeah, I think the Bailey trial has much broader symbolism and importance to the United States than the trial of Barry Bonds,” said Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and executive editor of the Chauncey Bailey Project.

Another issue that has caused concern in the African American community is how boys and men of color are portrayed in the news media. “Usually when you see this demographic in the press, they are accused of crime, victims of crime, or playing sports,” said Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

In the Bonds case, the media are hitting two out of three — a great average for baseball, but a Bonds conviction will have virtually no impact on American democracy.

The media should cover the Bonds trial, but it should not forget about the Bailey trial, which will still be going when the Bonds trial ends.

If those who are on trial for killing Bailey are indeed guilty but are allowed to go free, it will send a message that journalists — the people who keep society informed and hold those in power accountable — are fair game. (Bob Butler)

This story first appeared at, the website of the Maynard Institute, a member of the Chauncey Bailey Project, of which the Guardian is also a member.


On April 11, a defense attorney in the Chauncey Bailey murder trial asked the judge to ban jurors from reading newspapers or using the Internet for the duration of the trial after the Bay Area News Group and the Chauncey Bailey Project reported that a journalist had received a death threat while reporting a story related to the now defunct Your Black Muslim Bakery.

Gary Sirbu, who is representing codefendant Antoine Mackey, made the request as the trial resumed Monday, April 11. Articles about the threat were published Saturday, April 9 on the front page of Bay Area News Group publications, including the Oakland Tribune.

Judge Thomas Reardon asked jurors if they had read any news stories over the weekend about the telephone threat made to reporter Josh Richman. By a show of hands, jurors indicated they had not read the articles.

Reardon denied Sirbu’s request, saying he did not want to make such an order. But the judge again cautioned jurors to avoid any news coverage about the case or anything related to Your Black Muslim Bakery. (Thomas Peele)