It’s been more than 30 years since I first spied a president’s column in Quill.
The words in those columns seemed wise, clear-sighted, astute, and the people in those photographs seemed unapproachable, secluded atop a pedestal somewhere that was far beyond my ability to climb.
Now, I am writing my first president’s column. Wow.
What most strikes me as I type is how wrong I was all those years ago. The words may have been wise, probably far wiser than mine will be, but there is no pedestal. The people in SPJ leadership are not secluded or unapproachable; at least we don’t wish to be. I am honored to serve as your president, humbled by your confidence and looking forward to your input.
I also am ready and able to make my way throughout the country to visit with you, the heart and soul of SPJ. I have the gavel, and I’m ready to travel, so drop me a line, and we’ll set something up.
The Society of Professional Journalists made two controversial awards during October’s national convention and journalism conference in Las Vegas. We gave a First Amendment Award to Judith Miller of The New York Times and a Sunshine Award to Lisa Madigan, the Illinois attorney general.
Miller’s award is controversial because her motives for spending 85 days in jail are unclear. Not everyone believes she did it with the purest of intentions. As of this writing in late October, I’ve read everything I can lay my hands on about the Miller case, and I still don’t know if she is a heroine or a villain to journalism. She did, however, spend 85 days in jail, and that focused a great deal of attention on the need for a federal shield law to protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources. That’s what the First Amendment Award was meant to recognize.
Madigan’s award is controversial because she has done more as the Illinois attorney general than create a freedom of information officer to handle inquiries about public records, which is what SPJ recognized with the award. She also has become the lawyer for the defendant in an important student media-freedom case called Hosty v. Carter.
The Hosty case involves the student newspaper at Governors State University in Illinois. The dean of students there, Patricia Carter, told a printing company in October 2000 not to print further editions of the newspaper until a university official approved them. The students, led by a graduate student named Margaret Hosty, sued and won in a lower court. The issue then became whether Carter was financially liable for violating the students’ rights, and Illinois law is unclear on that.
From the beginning, SPJ offered to help Hosty with attorney’s fees, but she chose to represent herself.
The case preceded Madigan’s election. James Ryan was the attorney general who appealed the lower-court decision, and he asked the court to apply a 1988 Supreme Court ruling that has become known as the Hazelwood decision. That case involved high school newspapers, and the court ruled that administrators could censor high school publications.
A three-judge panel disagreed with Ryan and ruled for the students. The attorney general asked the full court to hear it, and the 11-judge panel decided to apply Hazelwood and overturn the lower-court ruling.
SPJ, of course, vehemently disagrees with the appeals court decision. Along with other journalism organizations, we have filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging it to hear an appeal of the 7th Circuit decision. But we don’t believe it’s fair to blame Madigan for what happened.
The board and the executive committee felt that Madigan inherited the Hosty case, and it was her sworn duty to defend the state whether she wanted to or not. She is, after all, the state’s lawyer.
I personally support the board’s decisions to give these awards, but I also understand that many members, nonmember journalists and citizens feel strongly that we were wrong.
What it points out to me is that the Society needs better systems with which to nominate people for awards and vet those nominations. I have asked two of our standing committees, Freedom of Information and Ethics, to develop ideas and propose a system. I expect that system to involve a chance for all SPJ members to comment on nominees via our Web site, SPJ.org.
David Carlson spent more than 20 years as a reporter, photographer, designer and top editor at newspapers before joining the University of Florida in 1993. He was an early developer of online newspapers and now is the Cox/Palm Beach Post professor of new media journalism and director of the Interactive Media Lab at the University of Florida in Gainesville.