A little-known trial and a slow news day sent me to court last week, but I never expected to fall under fire as I sat in the gallery.

Jury selection began ordinarily enough in the sexual assault case last Tuesday, as state and defense counselors systematically ran through the long list of questions designed to ensure the defendant's jury of peers was as impartial as possible.

There were the usual inquiries about whether any of the jurors knew anyone in the case. Jurors were polled to see if they had ever been the victim of a similar assault or accused of the crime themselves. And, as usual, the jurors were advised to avoid all media coverage of the case if they were chosen for the panel.

It was then that a defense attorney took aim at the press.

As he stood before the jury box, the attorney turned the volume up on his voice and attempted to drown out images of his client that had never appeared on a TV screen or the printed page. In a tone that implied reporters were lower than the dirt on soles of his shoes, he reminded his audience that the media don't always get the story right, assured jurors they would have more information than any reporter ever could on the case and announced that they should not find his client guilty "to satisfy some television camera."

He was right. No one should ever be found guilty to please a camera, reporter or public that doesn't know the full story. But, he was indicting the press without a piece of evidence or even a grand jury hearing, and that made me think.

His point of view is becoming a particularly popular refrain.

President Bush has used it frequently in recent months. Facing a decreasing approval rating and attempting to reassure a nation worried about a war with no end in sight, his administration announced that Americans just can't see the progress in Iraq because the media don't do success stories.

Closer to home, an audience member at Bluefield State College former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge recently about a "media-created"ù frenzy over the sluggish government response to Hurricane Katrina's wrath.

And, during recent interviews with political candidates, one answered the questions he was asked and then made a request of their own. He asked the reporters for help in staying out of political hot water. "Now, don't get me in trouble," he said as he prepared to leave the conference room.

Somewhere along the way, it seems almost everyone has forgotten that the purpose of journalism is not to be used as an tool for any particular side's agenda, but instead as a window into the world we all share.

Reports from Iraq should include the stories of survival and success. The Iraqis have voted, their armed forces are in training and some of the infrastructure has been repaired, but there are still people dying in explosions and attacks every day. To ignore that would be to deny the reality we're charged with reflecting.

Press people certainly covered the plight of Katrina refugees in the days and weeks they spent trapped in a devastated region, hungry, thirsty and homeless. While our cameras caught images of them on New Orleans' rooftops, our reporters did not put them there.

And, though I suspect the media will always be blamed with some political failure, candidates really ought to realize their answers, not our reports, really get them into trouble.

Much like the lawyer paid to point the finger of guilt anywhere except his defense table, Americans are increasingly turning our anger toward the people who tell the stories instead of the actions that really write them.

We've started shooting the messengers for delivering news we hoped not to hear, and that's dangerous in a government where the press is the Fourth Estate.

While we're busy convicting the press industry for the ethical trangressions of reporters like Jason Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke, we may find society's real offenders escape without so much as an investigation.

Tammie Toler is Princeton Times editor. Contact her at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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