Ed Chittenden made journalists attending the SPJ convention in Tampa feel right at home. The Florida Aquarium diver jumped into a 500,000-gallon reef tank. Swimming from side to side in this exotic setting, he described how a reef system works and told us about the habits and characteristics of the fish, coral and other animals in the tank.
It was the highlight of the opening night reception that kicked off the Sept. 11-13 convention. Nearly 600 people attended the gathering to hone their craft, learn about threats to freedom of information or seek tips on promoting ethical journalism. They came to be inspired by CNN International President Chris Cramer or documentary film maker Steven Ives, who premiered portions of a new film about how journalists have covered American wars. They came to see old friends and make new ones, and to recognize members and chapters who excelled in the year past.
And they came to the opening night reception at the Florida Aquarium, where they could eat seafood or watch it swim.
Chittenden attracted a big crowd, perhaps because we journalists could empathize with what he was doing. It’s what we do every day: jump into unfamiliar settings, learn as much as we can and describe it to listeners, viewers and readers.
Chittenden’s demonstration set the tone for a convention that explored the state of journalism – and had some fun along the way. Here are some slices of the weekend:
• The war on terrorism was a constant theme throughout the weekend. The convention proper opened with the reading of a resolution honoring the 14 journalists who have died covering the war in Iraq. It continued with a panel discussion featuring an embedded and unilateral reporter, Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman and legendary reporter Sy Hersh. Sparks flew when Hersh dismissed the embedding program as a “high-powered public relations” job by the Pentagon. Stories filed by embedded reporters were accurate, he said, but they gave an inaccurate overall image of the war because reporters were too close to the troops they were covering. Responded Whitman: “That does not give the journalism profession enough credit.”
• Ethics was top of mind, also, especially given the high-profile transgressions of the past year. Several sessions explored ethical concerns, but the one that made the most news featured Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor at The New York Times who wrote the “We have to stop Jayson Blair from writing for the Times” memo. He brought gasps when he contradicted a principal finding by a committee that investigated Blair’s actions. The committee said a lack of communications between editors was a major problem. But Landman said top Times editors brushed aside warnings. “There was a massive amount of communication going on between editors,” Landman said. “There was a sweeping aside by the top guys.” His stop-Blair memo, Landman told a student reporter with the convention newspaper, “was really a punctuation point at the end of a long, long sentence.”
• Fun. Did I mention fun? It came in the unlikely roasting of former SPJ and SDX Foundation President Paul McMasters, who is stepping down after 20 years of service on the two boards. “Never roast a nerd,” instructed John Siegenthaler Jr., retired publisher and editor of the Nashville Tennessean and the founding editorial page editor of USA Today. But after noting McMasters’ various, uh, idiosyncrasies (nailing a Christmas tree stand to a new hardwood floor!?), roasters Bruce Sanford, Lucy Dalglish, Ken Paulson and Siegenthaler praised McMasters for his unwavering devotion to the First Amendment. “He lives it. He suffers for it. And he fights for it. He is the champion of information,” Siegenthaler said.
• Friday night was a free night, but many conventioneers took up the invitation from the Mid-Florida Pro Chapter to attend the Battle of the Media Bands at the Cuban Club in Ybor City. Journalists in the bands showed off another set of talents by playing everything from Johnny Cash to Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Beatles – and they got the dance floor jumping. The band from Bay News 9 won the contest, but the real winner was the nearly $3,000 raised for minority scholarships.
• The Legal Defense Fund Auction practically promises that at some point in the evening, SDX Foundation member Betsy Ashton will have former SPJ President Steve Geimann in a headlock as they battle for some item. This year was no disappointment, as the two sought the upper hand for a Florida Times Leader cartoon. But while Ashton pinned Geimann and poured a few drops of beer over his head, TV consultant Ken Venitt slipped in with a winning bid of $430.
• Feel-good highlights: The surprised look of University of Iowa’s Richard Johns when he received the David Eshelman Outstanding Campus Adviser Award. He’s the first adviser to win the award twice, having been recognized the first time in 1985. The giddiness of the University of Maryland’s Sue Kopen Katcef on winning the Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award, one year after winning the Eshelman award. The heartfelt thanks from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Seth Rosenfeld, when Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Vice President Frank Gibson presented him with the Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment award. Rosenfeld was honored for a 22-year effort to uncover the truth about Ronald Regan and the FBI’s involvement in a Red scare at the University of California. The standing ovation given SPJ Executive Director Terry Harper as he received a President’s Award.
• The convention ended with the installation of Mac McKerral as president. His promised priorities: streamlining governance, making decisions on issues that have been discussed for years and building membership. Before he began, McKerral promised a 650-speech. When he went over by 33 words, he claimed presidential prerogative – something, he said, he won’t use lightly in the year ahead.
Robert Leger is the immediate past president of SPJ and editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.