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‘Murdaugh Murders’ Media Coverage: Access Issues Debated

Will transparency, fairness continue to prevail?

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Ever since he was tapped by the South Carolina supreme court to handle matters related to the ‘Murdaugh Murders’ crime and corruption saga, circuit court judge Clifton Newman has been a champion of transparency.

Newman has afforded the media near-unfettered access to pretrial hearings involving disgraced attorney Alex Murdaugh, who stands accused of savagely dispatching his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and their younger son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, sometime after 8:44 p.m. EDT on June 7, 2021 near the dog kennels on the family’s 1,700-acre hunting property – known locally as Moselle.

Murdaugh is scheduled to be judged by a jury of his peers in Walterboro, S.C. beginning on January 23.

The media access heretofore granted by Newman has permitted the public to follow the latest twists and turns in this still-unfolding legal drama – which is poised to reach a point of critical mass at Murdaugh’s upcoming double homicide trial.

Access to these proceedings has been essential considering it is not just Murdaugh who is on trial in this case – but the state’s much-maligned justice system, too.

Newman’s openness with the press has stood in stark contrast to a disturbing pattern of secrecy within South Carolina’s court system – which provides (at best) inconsistent public access to courtrooms where the people’s business is conducted. And produces, not surprisingly, uneven outcomes.

“There is no uniform standard in South Carolina for allowing audio, video and photo recording inside state courtrooms,” I wrote in an expansive column on this subject thirteen months ago. “It is literally up to the whims of individual judges, far too many of whom like to play favorites with members of the media – cherrypicking which news outlets are allowed to have photographers and videographers in their courtrooms and which ones are not.”

Such selective access and favoritism is totally unacceptable.

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RELATED | Judicial Transparency Sorely Needed In South Carolina

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“Public hearings must be conducted in public,” I noted in my December 2021 post. “And public business must remain public.”

As we approach the commencement of Murdaugh’s double homicide trial, multiple media outlets are raising concerns about what they perceive to be the unfair curtailing of access to the forthcoming proceedings. Specifically, they are worried about seating arrangements at the trial, court-imposed restrictions on essential reporting tools (laptops, cell phones, etc.) as well as the potential lack of access to certain public exhibits which will be introduced by prosecutors and defense attorneys during the proceedings.

This news outlet has yet to weigh in on these concerns – which have reportedly attracted the attention of Jay Bender, a retired law professor with years of experience litigating public records access cases. Bender is reportedly meeting with court officials this week to discuss concerns raised by the media outlets, however calls to his office were not immediately returned.

Hopefully, Bender’s involvement will have a positive impact on this process.

Certainly, I understand and respect Newman’s insistence that the Colleton County courtroom where he is scheduled to preside over this trial not devolve into a circus. And I appreciate his preparations with court officials – and the town of Walterboro – to handle the influx associated with ‘Murdaughpalooza.”

This is why I fully support the decision to designate CourtTV as the sole provider of a shared live feed for these proceedings – one which can be accessed by all media outlets. As long as this feed is made available to everyone – television, print, internet, podcasters, etc. – I have absolutely no issue with this decision.

Similarly, I have no issue with the court designating one photographer to provide pool access to the press. While I have been enjoying trying my hand at courtroom photography over the last few months here at FITSNews, it makes sense to streamline this function as well. Again, assuming this photographer’s stream is available to all media outlets – television, print, internet, podcasters, etc. – I have no issue with this decision, either.

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As for the ability of reporters to access the trial – and faithfully report on what is transpiring during the proceedings – I believe the present deliberations should take a few things into consideration.

Regarding which reporters are granted access, it is my hope that fundamental fairness will prevail.

For example, I should think preference should be given to South Carolina-based media outlets – especially those which have been covering this story from the very beginning. Denying access to these outlets – especially in the name of accommodating national media who are parachuting into this story at the last minute – would be patently unfair.

At least one journalist from FITSNews, The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper, The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, The Greenville News, Murdaugh Murders Podcast and Murdaugh Family Murders podcast should be present in the courtroom at all times for this trial.

Why? Because we have been driving this story for the past year-and-a-half (some of us even longer than that).

Similarly, at least one representative of the state’s local network affiliates should be given access to cover the trial – including reporters like Riley Benson of WCBD TV-2 (NBC Charleston) and Anne Emerson of WCIV TV-4 (ABC – Charleston), both of whom have been following this case from the beginning.

Beyond that, I think it is fair to give consideration to national reporters who have covered the story closely – like Valerie Bauerlein of The Wall Street Journal.

Bottom line: I don’t know the precise number of media seats which ought to be made available (20-24 would be my best guess), but I think the reporters sitting in those seats should be mostly journalists from the Palmetto State who have been on top of this saga all along. Journalists who have broken news, shaped narratives and consistently pushed for accountability from all parties involved (including the press).

(Click to View)

Microphones positioned outside the Colleton County courthouse following a July 20, 2022 hearing (FITSNews)

Once the size and composition of the press pool has been determined, one thing should be perfectly clear: The media must be able to do its job.

That means members of the media pool must be allowed access to their cell phones and laptops during the proceedings.

Certainly, judge Newman and court officials should be allowed to impose reasonable restrictions on the use of these devices – and be able to toss anyone from the court who forgets to set their iPhone to vibrate – but reporters should not be denied access to the most basic tools of their trade.

Finally, as it relates to the availability of documents, photographs, videos or other exhibits submitted into evidence by either prosecutors or defense attorneys during the course of this trial – I hope this never becomes an issue.

These are public documents. Submitted in a public trial. In a public courtroom.

Some of these materials may be graphic and disturbing … but it should be up to each individual media outlet to determine how it is going to handle such sensitive information, not a government censor.

My recommendation? Newman – working in concert with court and local officials – should establish a ‘Murdaugh media listserv’ for this trial which updates its subscribers with official materials from the trial via email as they are released. This way, all media outlets would receive these materials at the same time. At that point, as noted previously, it would be up to the leadership of each outlet to decide how this information should be best presented to its audience.

As for this news outlet, we will be announcing our trial coverage plans early next week after we get a sense of how Newman and court officials plan to proceed on the matters discussed above.

Whatever transpires during those deliberations, though, count on myself, trial anchor/ producer Ashleigh Messervey, director of special projects Dylan Nolan and research director Jenn Wood to continue bringing our audience the same comprehensive, credible coverage that FITSNews has provided from the moment it broke this story wide open back in June of 2021.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.

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