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"The media, the law and me (but no cats, promise)"--A Commentary by Michael McGough '77 MSL

(This essay originally appeared in the Saturday, April 20, 2002, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)

Saturday Diary: The media, the law and me (but no cats, promise)

By Michael McGough '77 MSL

I have decided to violate one of my own op-ed edicts. Years ago I decreed that there would be no more Saturday Diaries about cats or school reunions. I'm not about to inflict a cat Diary on Post-Gazette readers, but the recent 25th anniversary celebration of a program at the Yale Law School is worth a self-dispensation.

Actually, it was 26 years ago that the PG's managing editor showed me a brochure about a new program at Yale for journalists who covered the courts. I had done a little of that as a cub reporter -- I particularly remember a drunken-driving hearing in the basement of a magistrate's home -- but by 1974 I was writing editorials and had gravitated toward legal and constitutional subjects.

The gravitational pull had been exerted by Richard Nixon, who by covering up the break-in at Democratic headquarters had created an editorial writing beat brimming with subpoenas, secret tapes and sanitized transcripts.

Though I was a novice on the editorial page in 1974, I found myself writing most of the editorials about our long national nightmare. The editor at the time, who had penned the PG's 1972 endorsement of the Tricky One, seemingly had soured on the subject as well as the man. As I wallowed in Watergate, I found the lore and lingo of constitutional law as appealing in its abstractness as the theology I had studied in college.

The program advertised in the brochure from Yale Law School was for a "rigorous introduction to legal culture" leading to an M.S.L. -- a Master of Studies in Law degree. The M.S.L. course was essentially the first year of law school with a few extra options. Previously all M.S.L.s had come from the ranks of professors whose disciplines lay close to the law on an academic relief map. This year, the brochure said, the Ford Foundation would be bankrolling five M.S.L. journalism fellows.


I applied, and a few months later received the "fat letter" college applicants dream about. The next fall I joined four other journalists in New Haven. We knew that we weren't welcome in some quarters. (Why waste a seat at the world's greatest law school on a journalist?) But the year turned out to be the most intense intellectual experience of my life -- not counting meetings of the PG editorial board, of course.

I took most of the first-year courses required of would-be lawyers, only one of which -- Contracts -- featured a Professor Kingsfield-style Socratic taskmaster, Ellen Peters, later the chief justice of Connecticut. She was an excellent teacher, astringent in class, accessible afterwards.

Unfortunately, what I have retained about Contracts would barely constitute a course in Father Guido Sarducci's "Five Minute University," where you learn in five minutes what most people remember five years after their college graduation. Thus the Sarducci Economics curriculum consisted of two words: "Supply and Demand." Ask me about Contracts, and I'll tell you "Offer and Acceptance."

But Yale's flexible requirements allowed first-year students to begin sampling legal exotica in the second semester. I treated myself to three Con Law electives -- a First Amendment seminar taught by New York Times attorney Floyd Abrams; "Constitutional Law and the Welfare State," and "Equality and the Law," which anticipated the Supreme Court's consideration the next term of the Bakke affirmative-action case, which I ended up covering for the PG. The Bakke case was also the subject of a moot court that year, presided over by Byron "Don't Call Me Whizzer" White, whose huge hand I got to shake in a memorable brush with judicial greatness (or grimness).


So how have things changed at the law school? The Gothic castle on Wall Street -- think of a flattened-out Cathedral of Learning -- is still a beehive of disputation, though a more commodious one than in my day. The slightly shabby student lounge that I remember -- the supposed site of Bill and Hillary's first meeting -- has been handsomely redecorated, and lecture halls are outfitted with electrical outlets so students don't have to burn out their laptop batteries.

Yet hyper-political students and faculty still post mini-manifestoes on "The Wall" on the first floor. When I was there for the M.S.L. reunion, screeds about the Middle East (Put Sharon on Trial for War Crimes! ... What about Arafat? . . . They Both Should be Tried!) had annexed territory usually occupied by passionate expressions of racial and gender politics. There was space left for a running debate on the effect of Yale Law School on one's religious faith.

One difference from 1976 was that the returning M.S.L. journalists -- drawn from a quarter-century's worth of fellows -- were left in no doubt about their welcome. To paraphrase a song from the movie "Nashville," the program must be doing something right to last 25 years. Yale is still covering tuition fees, and the Knight Foundation has assumed the Ford Foundation's sugar-daddy role. Despite changes in funding and the influx of real lawyers into journalism, the program remains popular with all its constituents,. Partly that's because its graduates haven't embarrassed the think tank in which they were allowed to splash around for a year.

Most of the M.S.L. journalists have stayed in the business, some, like Linda Greenhouse, The New York Times' Supreme Court reporter, staying close to the courtroom, others, like my PG colleague Mackenzie Carpenter, working broader beats in which legal know-how comes in handy. A few M.S.L.s, however, have gone over to the Dark Side and become lawyers. Some of them, including two members of my class, are atoning for their lucrative defections by advising their former newsroom colleagues about avoiding legal pitfalls.

From my perspective 25 years later, it seems bizarre that anyone would have questioned the relevance of the law school to the practice of journalism. Yale Law students used to joke that the place was great at turning out Supreme Court justices, law professors and other philosopher-kings, but that if you wanted someone to draw up a will it would be better to retain a graduate of a more traditional law school.

Maybe so, but the school was an ideal incubator for an editorial writer. Perhaps it should rename itself Yale Editorial Writing School, and offer one-year fellowships for practicing lawyers.

Michael McGough is editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.