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The Self-made Pundit

One man's rise to fame as Conrad Black fell.

Tom Barrett 25 Jul

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Totten: Knows his hats.

Do you dream of being a media expert? Would you like to be interviewed by newspaper reporters and TV hosts from around the world?

Sure, you say, I'd love to have my opinion sought by the well-groomed folks on TV talk shows -- but how does someone like me break into the glamorous world of media punditry?

Sometimes, it turns out, all you have to do is find a pack of reporters and start talking.

Amid the millions of words spilled over the recently concluded fraud trial of former Canadian Conrad Black, media outlets kept quoting a Chicago lawyer by the name of Hugh Totten.


As the trial ground on, the ubiquitous Mr. Totten would appear daily, saying things like:

"Juries have an innate ability in the American judicial system of determining who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat.

"All these trials, whether we like it or not, always turn out to be mini-morality plays.

"The prosecution has got to be able to firmly put the black hat on all these defendants. The jury is usually pretty good at weighing the evidence and figuring out whether that's a good fit or not."

Clearly, the man gives good quote.

So how did the media find Totten? Did they, perhaps, call up a bunch of Chicago lawyers who might be familiar with the issues raised by the case?

Not exactly.

Out of the pack

As a story in Sunday's Seattle Times explains, Totten was looking for a way to publicize his law practice, the Chicago office of the Seattle-based firm Perkins Coie.

"It's a very densely populated industry, and it's hard to break out of the pack," Totten explained.

Which led Totten to the idea of going down to the federal courthouse in Chicago and offering himself up as a talking head.

"Nearly every day, Totten went to the nearby federal courthouse for at least an hour or two; at night, he studied the case filings," the Times said.

"On days when the regular courtroom was full, Totten would go to the 'overflow' courtroom, which was video-linked to the main proceedings and was where many journalists hung out."

A lot of those journalists ended up sticking their microphones into Totten's face.

Totten's insights were carried by media outlets including Canadian Press, Reuters, Bloomberg, Fox News, ABC, NBC, CBS, CTV, CBC, MSNBC, the BBC, Global TV, the Boston Globe, the Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, the Guardian and the CanWest newspaper chain.

Brilliant insights

Of all the commentators who offered their views on Lord Black's trial, Totten was perhaps the most articulate and reasonable. When the jury declared that it was deadlocked and other commentators began offering fanciful speculation about what this might mean for Black, Totten sensibly pointed out that "no one knows what it means."

And, unlike a number of trial observers, Totten correctly predicted that the jury would find Black guilty on at least some of the charges.

So who is Totten? Is he a former prosecutor? An expert in corporate fraud? A veteran criminal defence lawyer?

Not exactly.

He is, the Seattle Times reported, "a civil litigator who specializes in construction and design law.

"'This was the kind of case that I'd tried [before] -- complex, lots of documents, corporate-structure stuff,' Totten said before dashing off to a CBC interview about Black's pending appeal. 'As far as the criminal-procedure part, I figured I could learn.'"

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