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Few other stories have generated the media frenzy that the custody battle over Elian Gonzalez did. When the matter made its way to family court in Miami-Dade County, television news crews and radio and newspaper reporters clogged the halls of justice, stumbling over each other as they fought for that perfect quote or front page photo. With a high-profile case, the media can create a mob scene, eroding public decorum and transforming the proceedings into a circus. For that reason, Miami-Dade Chief Judge Joseph Farina has issued an administrative order outlining procedures for the next “special interest” or “high-visibility” case before the court. Among other things, the plan designates a specific courtroom where such cases are to be heard, along with a media room. It also limits where interviews can be conducted — i.e. not in the halls — and prohibits filming or interviewing those associated with the case anywhere but in designated areas. Although Farina signed the order on March 24, its existence comes as a surprise to those it most impacts: members of the media, in particular television stations. Several television news directors said they knew nothing about the edict, among them Shannon High-Bassalik at WFOR-Channel 4. Although she said she is all for a more organized system, High-Bassalik worries about the potential for interfering with freedom of speech. “If their intention is to reduce the activity outside of the court, it won’t work,” she said. Karla Hernandez, the newly hired courthouse spokeswoman, said there had been efforts to put together a media day to inform the media about the plan, but it came during the critical television sweeps period, when stations vie for ratings, and it received no attention. She defended the fact that the plan was created without media input, noting that every circuit has some type of procedure in place and that the plan was designed to ensure that the courts have some “continuity” and “structure” when dealing with high-profile cases. The court’s attempt to organize media coverage is not new. In recent years, judges presiding over big cases have met with reporters to discuss guidelines that led to the establishment of temporary media rooms and closed-circuit television feeds. Last year, for example, news organizations were given a room and television feed during the early stages of the Florida smokers’ class action against several large tobacco companies. But as media interest waned, the court reclaimed the facilities. The same arrangement came into play after a raucous demonstration threatened to disrupt the opening stages of the city of Miami vote fraud trial in 1998. As reporters jockeyed for interviews during a lunch-hour recess outside the courtroom, the exercise quickly deteriorated into a shouting match between supporters of Mayor Joe Carollo and his opponent, Xavier Suarez. One participant amplified his chants through a bullhorn. Outraged, Circuit Judge Thomas Wilson threatened to jail anyone who staged a repeat performance. And court security officers restricted all interviews to a media area in an adjacent, unoccupied courtroom. More recently, reporters were considered out of control when ousted City Manager Donald Warshaw sought an injunction to prevent his firing. “There was a mob scene. People were standing on benches in the hall and it became dangerous,” Hernandez said. “We need to let you do your job, but we also need to maintain some sort of safety.” The court’s latest plan also calls for the creation of a media committee to be made up of one representative each from the worlds of television, radio, print and wire services. Again, none of the media outlets interviewed knew of any such committee. Although the plan currently applies only to family court cases, Hernandez said that a similar one is being developed for all cases heard in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. “This is just a way to [ensure] that everyone understands what needs to happen the minute a high-profile case comes about,” Hernandez said.

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