In May, Tom Curley, president and chief executive officer of the Associated Press, warned about forces of secrecy gaining strength from the war on terror and heightened privacy concerns.
But in August, he admitted that he hedged on some of his remarks back then.
Ask him now what he would change about The Hays Press-Enterprise Lecture he delivered in Riverside, Calif., this spring, and he’ll tell you he would be more direct.
“I would remove the qualifiers and conditionals,” Curley said. “A lot of the trends are developing even more strongly than we knew at the time.”
Curley, the leader of the world’s oldest and largest news organization, has helped raise the level of the national discussion about public access and Freedom of Information.
“We do not sit in some impartial referee’s box where open government is concerned,” Curley said during his May speech. “Like it or not, we’re in the game for keeps, and we can either play badly or play well.
“I believe we have a duty to play well, and that it’s time to learn whether some new moves will help.”
Curley’s speech became a catalyst for many, particularly longtime fighters for public access.
Since his speech — along with words of support — he has gathered a stack of anecdotes about growing secrecy at all levels of government.
He’s also heard from many who want to help in the fight.
“It is a happy thing really, both within AP and outside of AP,” he said. “We have really attracted a lot of support. Some people see the need to redouble their efforts.”
During his speech, he cited examples of government officials thwarting newsgathering:
• In April, a federal marshal erased part of a speech by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia being recorded by an AP reporter in Hattiesburg, Miss.
• In February, an AP photographer was covering a train derailment near Woodbridge, N.J. When he stepped onto railroad property to try to get a picture of the wreckage, the local police controlling access packed him into a squad car and drove him away.
• In March, an AP freelance photographer was taking pictures of people entering the Santa Barbara County Courthouse on the morning when a grand jury would consider molestation charges against Michael Jackson. One day earlier, a judge ordered the media not to identify or publish pictures of the grand jurors. A sheriff’s deputy demanded the photographer’s camera, flipped through the images and deleted one that the deputy decided violated the judge’s order.
“Your lawyer may eventually have the last word, but in the moment when the power of the state first confronts you, your choices are between doing what you’re told the easy way or doing it hard way,” Curley said.
“The powerful have to be watched, and we are the watchers. And you don’t need to have your notebook snatched by a policeman to know that keeping an eye on government activities has lately gotten a lot harder.”
Along with increased restrictions on newsgathering, Curley noted Attorney General John Ashcroft’s directive to federal departments to reverse the spirit of the federal Freedom of Information Act. He also noted increasing secrecy at state and local levels.
Curley is careful not to attack the Bush administration or “conservatives,” noting he’s not sure that things would change if Democrats were in power.
More than politics, he sees power driving secrecy.
He also sees it going beyond the fear of terrorist attacks to include technology, Internet development and globalization.
During his speech, he called for a full-time dedicated presence in Washington to push FOI issues. He is still working on what shape that may take as he speaks with representatives of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Radio-Television News Directors Association and Newspaper Association of America, he said.
He hopes to have a list of priorities from this group by the end of the year.
“If we don’t roll back some of the issues it may eclipse, and we may lose the opportunity to reverse them,” he said.
A likely first target for a joint effort is HIPAA, the acronym for the Health Information Portability and Privacy Act, a law creating nightmares for the public and journalists.
An example Curley offered: The AP’s national desk was unable to confirm the May dizzy spell of former President Gerald Ford on a California golf course. The hospital couldn’t even say whether Ford was there. It took several hours to confirm the sketchy details from Ford’s staff on a Saturday.
“Here’s how one senior editor put it in an after-action report: ’All I could think of was this: One of the five living former presidents might no longer be living, and we have no idea,’ ” Curley said.
Bruce Sanford a partner with Baker & Hostetler, longtime general counsel for the Society of Professional Journalists, said media groups welcomed Curley’s suggestion that AP play a greater role in Washington. Sanford said that it will help with the constant and continuing battle that is needed to protect news media freedom and access to information.
“They are a new player that has the resources to help make the case for Freedom of Information and First Amendment concerns,” said Sanford, author of “Don’t Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us.”
“We can’t have enough conversations with members of Congress,” Sanford said.
Sanford also hopes AP may help SPJ in its effort to expand anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) legislation in the states.
During a July meeting in New York with leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists, Curley also explored the idea of a national advertising campaign about the First Amendment and public access to government business. He also learned about SPJ’s efforts to create a “records audit in a box” and its FOI newsroom training.
Meanwhile, inside the AP, Curley has re-emphasized FOI by instructing bureau chiefs to get involved in statewide records audits and making sure all AP employees have basic training in FOI law. He sees the necessity of newsroom FOI training throughout the United States.
“We need to be doing the basics and talking about it,” Curley said. “We are making sure training and procedures are consistent around the (AP) bureau system.”
The Associated Press, a cooperative of U.S. newspapers and broadcasters, provides global coverage of news, sports, business and entertainment in all media formats to about 15,000 news outlets in more than 120 nations. It reaches more than 1 billion people a day.
Some journalists may view a news organization pushing an FOI agenda as “lobbying,” but Curley doesn’t see it that way.
“I do believe we need to redouble efforts on these issues, not just for journalists, for everybody,” he said. “We are a player. We have a stake in this.”
But along with pushing for change, journalists need to report about access issues and help engage the public’s support, Curley said.
“We need to redouble our efforts to put the spotlight on every appropriate incident,” Curley said. “This keeps this issue front and center.”
Curley said these stories need clarity in order to offer public benefit. During a television interview with Bill Moyers, Curley said that journalists need to report about access in “three bear language.”
“(That’s) Baby bear, Daddy bear and Mommy bear, just get in language that’s so simple that people understand,” he told Moyers. “And I think that’s what we have to work on.”
Part of Curley’s efforts to educate the public includes reporters and editors asking candidates about where they stand on public access issues. Editorial boards should make such questions standard for candidate interviews, he said.
“Ask what the candidates think about open government and the public’s right to know,” he said.
Joel Campbell is the co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee. A former reporter and editor, he is an assistant professor in Brigham Young University’s Department of Communications.