One of the best things about being president of SPJ is the opportunity to meet exemplary journalists all over the nation and hear their stories. Most of these folks are not well-known reporters, photographers, editors or commentators. No, these are people who do the hard work of serving the public through journalism at the state and local level – people whose courage, dedication and public service usually aren’t reported in journalism reviews, cited in Supreme Court cases or mentioned in SPJ freedom-of-information alerts.
An amazing group of these people gathered in San Francisco in mid-March for the 17th annual James Madison FOI Awards Dinner of SPJ’s Northern California Chapter. Rarely have I seen such an inspiring collection of First Amendment heroes in the same place. I cite them to you as examples of the hard work and commitment that goes on in every state and too often goes unnoticed beyond the communities that benefit from that service – and unappreciated in those communities.
Sometimes, such work can affect many communities and even countries. The World Free Press Institute has as its mission “to improve, support and strengthen a free press in its role as an opponent of tyranny around the world.” Led by San Francisco AP Bureau Chief Clay Haswell, the institute has comprehensive media-development programs in Belarus and east Africa that emphasize business models and investigative reporting, especially through the use of government documents and the Internet. The Institute, which also teaches journalists how to work for FOI laws, won the chapter’s James Madison Award for an organization.
You may have heard about SF Weekly and reporter Lisa Davis, who won national attention for investigating how nuclear researchers grossly mishandled radioactive substances in a secret lab at a naval shipyard. The newspaper made its two years of research available to the public by posting databases and copies of previously classified documents on its Web site.
The other big Bay Area weekly, the Bay Guardian, won an award for keeping freedom of information at the forefront of its news coverage and public-service campaigns throughout its 36 years. Its commitment is exemplified by an annual FOI issue, the latest edition of which was on the street while I was there. It was impressive and inspiring.
So was the case of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, which fought a legal battle against a court order forbidding it to publish color photos of defendants in a certain case. The Tribune is a small paper, but was willing to spend scarce resources to challenge this silly attempt at prior restraint.
Another winner was the Oakland Tribune, which filed suit against the city to get key records relating to a city employee’s sexual harassment charges against a key adviser and close friend of Mayor Jerry Brown. This battle could set an important precedent on the personnel exemption in the state open-records act.
Student journalists can make a difference, too. The newspaper at California State University-Chico, The Orion, reported on the school’s compliance with open-records laws and explained the importance of such records to students and citizens. At Novato High School, student journalists Stella Robertson and Ruth Osorio revived the student newspaper by educating themselves, the school, its administration and the community about student journalists’ rights.
At a time when the fear of terrorism is constricting the freedom of information, it’s important that journalists and their allies explain the need for FOI. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll started doing that on Sept. 11, in a column published the next day. The chapter called his writings “courageous and outspoken” and gave him its James Madison Award for commentary. Tom Meyer of the Chronicle won a rarely issued award for editorial cartooning, recognizing his work that lambasted the erosion of civil liberties.
Journalists and their allies also need to play offense on terrorism-related issues by looking for ways to expand and strengthen freedom of information. California voters may get a chance to do that this fall if the legislature offers them a constitutional amendment establishing a fundamental right to scrutinize public meetings and records. The driving force behind the idea is not a journalist, but a lawyer, James Chadwick, who has donated hundreds of hours of time to the cause and won the chapter’s advocacy award.
Lawyers are journalists’ necessary helpmeets in many FOI battles. In every state, one or a handful of lawyers stand out as our leading allies. In California, two of those are John Carne and Thomas Burke. Carne, who won the chapter’s career-achievement award, has handled major FOI cases, taught First Amendment law and advised African journalists and the Hungarian government on FOI matters. Burke, who won this year’s legal-counsel award, has contributed much to the drafting and passage of important legislation and is now trying to unseal decades-old records of the legislature’s Un-American Activities Committee.
While we often joust with public officials over records and access, there are public officials in every state who go out of their way to serve the public interest by making information public, and the Northern California chapter rightly recognizes them, too. In the midst of California’s 2001 electricity crunch, state Controller Kathleen Connell published the complete texts of $43 million worth of state energy contracts on her office’s interactive Web site, which explained the contracts. In a marvelous little gimmick that should help the public see the value of shining lights into dark places, the site allowed viewers to see previously redacted portions of the contracts by clicking on a light switch.
All over America, largely unheralded journalists and their allies are clicking on light switches. Let’s salute them, encourage them, and follow their examples.
Al Cross is president of SPJ and a political columnist at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.