National Press Club

TV producer who helped expand shield protections in Michigan to speak at Club

May 19, 2015 | By Sara Reardon | sara.reardon@us.nature.com

In 1986, TV producer Bradley Stone spent nearly 48-hours behind bars in Detroit for flouting a subpoena to turn over tapes of interviews with gang members.

Stone, who now works at WSB-TV in Atlanta, will discuss his experience when he joins a panel of fellow "jailbird" journalists at 6 p.m. Monday, June 1, at the Club for a landmark symposium on the need for stronger legal protections for reporters.

The two-hour event in the Murrow Room is open to the public and is sponsored by the Club’s Journalism Institute and Freedom of the Press Committee. Tickets are $5 for Club members and $10 for the public.

In 1985, Stone was a producer at Detroit’s local CBS affiliate, WJBK, and was working on his first investigative series about a drug gang.

Shortly after it aired, a state trooper was shot and killed in an unrelated incident near the same location where Stone had filmed the series. Trying to help out, WJBK’s police reporter mentioned to the cops that Stone had been working nearby and might have some information.

But Stone had nothing and told the police that when they showed up demanding his videotapes. He handed over his illegible notes, but refused to turn over the tapes, as they would have identified his sources. Instead, he quietly gave them to a colleague at the station and asked him to hide them.

About a month later, the police subpoenaed his recordings and tapes, and that’s when Stone says his life turned to hell. He was repeatedly hauled in front of a prosecutor, who tried to force him to turn over the tapes.

“It really cost me three years of my professional life,” he said. “And I was angry that they wouldn’t believe me.”

Stone finally lost an appeal and was sentenced to four months in county jail for contempt of court. It was a stroke of bad luck. The appeals court decided that Michigan’s 1949 shield law only covered print journalists because broadcast news hadn’t been conceived at the time.

So in September, Stone went to jail, while local journalists protested outside. His case had already garnered a fair amount of media attention, including a forthcoming appearance on “Nightline.”

“When I went in, I said to everybody, ‘The prosecutor’s never getting those tapes, I’m here for as long as it takes,’” he said. “It really became personal.”

Nevertheless, he said the time he spent behind bars was very difficult.

“Even if I wanted to go out of jail – even if I was going nuts in there, which I kind of was – I had no ticket out of jail,” he said. “Even if I turned over all my tapes, I knew nothing about this stuff, and it wouldn’t have helped.”

Stone remained in jail for fewer than two days before an appeals court overturned his conviction and he was released. But he says the situation dragged on for three years, and the police subpoenaed his notes again before they gave up.

“They finally decided they’d better start looking on their own,” he said.

Eventually, Stone said, the police arrested someone in connection with the crime. As a result of his case, the Michigan law was updated to include broadcast journalists.

What he said he took away from the experience was to be more careful about making promises.

“Before you promise someone confidentiality, you really need to know that you could end up going to jail,” he said.

He said he was impressed by journalists, such as fellow panelist Vanessa Leggett, who spent 168 days in jail protecting her sources.

“I would have been climbing the walls,” he said.

A few years ago, Stone got a call from one of his sources, who had since left the drug business.

“He just said, ‘Hey, remember me, I just want to thank you for not blowing it for me,’” Stone said. The source would probably have gone to prison had the police identified him.

“His life would have been ruined, but he turned it around eventually," Stone said.