Don’t Shoot the Messenger’s Messenger

Bruce Sanford combines a keen understanding of the media, and a love of writing, with the practice of law

Published in 2008 Washington DC Super Lawyers Magazine — March 2008

A brief stint in the 1960s as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal proved two things to Bruce Sanford: he loved writing, and he didn’t want to do it for a living.

“I decided I wanted to participate in the shaping of decisions rather than reporting on them,” says Sanford. So he enrolled in New York University School of Law and headed in that direction. Little did he know that his media knowledge would be so useful.

He joined Baker Hostetler in 1971 and started practicing in the nascent area of media law. Today, his client list is a who’s who of media and publishing: The New York Times, The Hearst Corporation, E.W. Scripps Co., ABC, NBC, Fox-TV, AOL/Time Warner, Random House, Simon & Schuster and Bertelsmann, among others. He has defended more than 1,000 libel, intellectual property and First Amendment cases throughout North America and overseas.

After 30 years of handling such cases, Sanford wrote a book about the role of the free press in a democratic society: Don’t Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us.

“The public’s attitude toward the press fascinates me,” the 62-year-old attorney says. “I’d seen so many jury cases on libel issues: I brought that prism to it.”

The idea to write such a book came easily to the veteran libel lawyer. Time to write it didn’t. Don’t Shoot the Messenger took him 10 years to complete. His three children—now ages 18, 24 and 38—teased him about procrastinating. “They were all over me, but for about three or four years in the mid-’90s I was swamped with work,” he says.

When the Free Press published it in 1999, the book was widely praised. The Baltimore Sun called it “the most intelligently disciplined book on the role of a free press.” Larry King termed it “brilliant, a must-read”and picked it as a book of the week.

Sanford has done other legal work in corporate and securities areas, and he has written Libel and Privacy, a 900-page treatise. “Because of my reputation, most people don’t know that my practice is broader than media work,” he says.

That reputation doesn’t hurt, though. It has attracted a slew of celebrity clients, including Bill Clinton and Barbara Bush, and he’s defended cases brought by one of Elvis Presley’s girlfriends, one of Vanna White’s boyfriends and a former U.S. ambassador to Chile. Most of his cases involve defending clients against libel charges. “My practice has been enormously broad and diverse,” Sanford says. “It doesn’t feel like I’m doing the same thing I did five years ago or even last year. I think that’s why I enjoy it so much.”

He wants to write another book but hasn’t picked a subject. His friend and client, John Grisham, has encouraged him to try fiction. “He tells me I have a vivid imagination,” Sanford says.

Just no journalism. That he’s done.

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