At SPJ’s National Convention in Fort Worth, Robert Leger was sworn in as the Society’s new president. This column is excerpted from his speech at the Fort Worth convention.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as tragic as they were, inspired great heroism, courage and selflessness. They enkindled great journalism, as we were reminded at the Fort Worth convention.
But the war on terror also unleashed opportunists, who troll the halls of state capitols and Congress seeking to use a war for freedom as an excuse to limit freedom. Industry tried to create a black hole in the federal Freedom of Information Act that would hide its most grievous misdeeds. State legislatures closed records that had been open for years. The New Jersey governor thumbed his nose at lawmakers. When they expanded open records, he threatened to shut them back down by executive order.
The battle to keep government open and accountable will be a long one. Those who would trade liberty for false promises of security won’t give up easily. They’ll be back with new arguments, new rationales for letting government operate in the dark.
SPJ will be waiting for them. We will continue to be the beacon on the hill for freedom of information, thanks in large part to our Washington law firm, Baker & Hostetler, and our FOI chairs, Ian Marquand and Charles Davis. With our D.C. chapter, we will continue to build our Washington presence to fight the major FOI battles there.
Freedom of Information is under attack not just on the banks of the Potomac, though. Reporters in every state and community face their own conflicts. To help them, Ian and his committee produced the “Open Doors” booklet with funding from the SDX Foundation. It’s a great resource for challenging those who would close records or meetings. We’re putting it in the hands of reporters and editors across the nation.
But it’s not just bureaucrats we must contend with. A year ago, journalists’ standings in public opinion surveys were as high as the president’s. We knew they would drop. They have – and how.
A majority of respondents in a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said we, in the press, get in the way of society solving its problems. A Freedom Forum survey found – for the first time – a plurality of people who said the First Amendment goes too far. This is frightening.
But there is good news in both surveys – news we should capitalize on.
The Pew survey found an increase in the number of people who say press scrutiny of political leaders keeps them honest. In the Freedom Forum poll, a plurality of 40 percent said they have too little access to information about the government’s war on terrorism. Americans may not like a pushy press, but they want the information a pushy press brings them.
This is our opportunity. Most of our battles for freedom of information are fought in the halls of government. But to make it easier to win there, we need to make our case in the living rooms of America.
We in SPJ can be part of that. I urge those who write columns and editorials to use your voices to explain the importance of open records in keeping government accountable. It’s not just journalists who use the law – it’s your readers, listeners and viewers. Reporters and editors can tell the objective story of how FOI keeps government in the sunshine.
Still, we need to go beyond that. SPJ launched the Project Watchdog ad campaign a decade ago to promote the role of a free press in a free society. Today, we need a new campaign.
This one would promote the importance to a free society of keeping public records freely available. SPJ is pushing to make this happen, exploring partnerships with the editors’, publishers’ and broadcasters’ associations to produce and distribute public service ads. These ads will explain why it’s important to Americans that public records remain open.
With Project Watchdog, we asked: If the press didn’t tell you, who would? Our new appeal should ask: If government can hide it from you, who will keep government honest?
Not everything SPJ does will be directed outward. We have 500 more members than we had last year at this time. Howard Dubin’s membership campaign helped boost numbers, but we also had to give people a reason to join. I’m encouraged that we gained members as our advocacy of FOI became more visible.
I can’t overlook what I believe to be our strongest asset in growing membership: active chapters.
In the next year, I promise to do more to nurture them. For starters, I’ve asked former President Kyle Niederpruem to serve as chapter doctor. She’ll work closely with Deputy Executive Director Julie Grimes in providing advice and counsel to chapters. That should tell you how important I think chapters are – you’ll have two Wells Key winners working with them.
Leading a chapter also will be easier under new pro chapter requirements the board approved this week. Finally, we’re acknowledging that one size doesn’t fit every chapter. The new guidelines include incentives for the best chapters – and mechanisms to help revitalize chapters that barely have a pulse.
We need strong chapters, strong journalists and strong leaders. Tough challenges lie ahead, but this is why SPJ exists. It is our calling, our responsibility to stand for freedom of information, ethical journalism and the First Amendment. We have work to do. Let’s get to it.
Robert Leger is president of SPJ and editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.