Colleagues describe Paul McMasters as “committed,” “focused,” “straightforward,” “tireless,” “hardworking,” “serious” and a “really nice guy” who has a good sense of humor and is even a bit shy.
McMasters, who retired Jan. 31 as First Amendment Center’s ombudsman at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., is a “superstar” to Traci Bauer.
The reason gets to the heart of McMasters’ lifelong passion: protecting the rights and values guaranteed by the First Amendment; battling government secrecy; and defending the right to freedom of information for reporters and ordinary citizens alike.
In 1989, Bauer, now managing editor for media at the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, was a sophomore at Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State) in Springfield, when she turned to McMasters to help her get access to campus crime reports the school was denying her.
She had access to daily reports for the paper’s crime blotter until — following up on a tip — she asked for a report about a rape on campus that involved a basketball player. School officials wouldn’t give it to her. Then they shut down her access to any crime reports.
Among others involved in pressing Bauer’s case were Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, and Reginald Stuart, another SPJ national leader who, along with McMasters, helped get SDX Foundation funding for her legal costs and spoke publicly about Bauer’s case.
“He was just a superstar,” Bauer said of McMasters, also a graduate of Southwest Missouri State. The legal battle “defined my entire college career,” she said.
In 1991 a federal court ruled that denying the student press access to campus crime reports violated the First Amendment.
At the time, McMasters was SPJ’s national Freedom of Information chairman. He also has been national SPJ president, 1993-94, and president of the SDX Foundation, 2000-02. He is a member of and has served on the boards of several other journalism organizations and just completed four years as president of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
As SPJ’s president, he traveled to all 50 states to visit chapters, a feat unmatched by any president. He “set a level of connectivity with our members that we hadn’t seen in a long time,” said Stuart, a corporate recruiter for McClatchy who succeeded McMasters as president.
McMasters took the helm when the society was “almost broke” and helped “set the stage” for its revival, drawing on logistics skills he learned during a stint in the military, Stuart said. “He gave me a baton with a real firm grip.”
McMasters was named the First Amendment Center’s ombudsman in November 1995. From January 1992 to November 1995, he was executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and vice president of the Freedom Forum. For a while he commuted between Nashville and his home in Virginia, but for the last several years he worked out the Freedom Forum in Arlington.
Before that, he worked in daily journalism for more than 30 years, including 10 years at USA Today, 1982-92.
His job as ombudsman, McMasters said, was “to represent the public’s interests when First Amendment issues arose in Congress, in the courts or other public arenas … to speak and write and serve the interests of the public in protecting and promoting the First Amendment.”
He has written more than 1,500 articles in books, journals and newspapers and for the First Amendment Center Web site. He has testified at many Capitol Hill hearings and been called on as an expert by countless news shows.
“I believe that Americans today are much more aware of the rights and values reflected in the First Amendment than they were 10, 15, 50 years ago,” he said.
But at the same time, “the pressures on those rights and values” from government and other sources “is much greater than it ever was,” he said.
He said the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s “propensity and passion for secrecy … has really put a lot of essential information beyond the reach” of Congress, the courts, academe, the press and the public.
National, state and local governments are “shutting off access by the public to government information,” he said. “There is a parallel effort by government, especially at the national level, to get more private information about American citizens and put it into government databases for whatever purposes.
“That’s a recipe for democratic disaster,” McMasters said.
But “the doors slamming shut in the faces of the American citizens … has galvanized the press especially but other organizations as well into really effective action in fighting these things and in organizing to inform the American public of just how much is going on and what’s at stake.”
As a youngster growing up in Missouri, McMasters came to appreciate “the idea of free expression” early on in his love of books and newspapers.
He discovered journalism during his junior year at Stockton High School in Missouri in a business class. The teacher wanted her students to improve their typing skills by putting together the school paper, Tiger Tracks. They reported stories and typed them up.
“I didn’t learn to type all that well,” he recalled, “but I really developed an early passion for journalism — getting the story and reporting the story and seeing what impact it might have on whatever community that newspaper was targeted at.”
But after high school, “the whole idea of college was really far-fetched,” he said. “No McMasters in my family had ever gone to college. I was the oldest of 10 kids. We lived on a hard-scrabble farm in the Ozarks in Cedar County.”
His artistic abilities led him to win a statewide contest to design book covers and get a job offer from Hallmark in Kansas City, Mo., to design greeting cards.
“It was a lot of money, and the idea of college had to compete with that,” McMasters said, but then he got job offers from the man who ran the public relations office at Southwest Missouri State and from the editor of Springfield’s daily newspapers: the morning Daily News, the afternoon Leader Press and the Sunday News Leader.
He worked in the college PR office during the school year and at the newspaper during the summer. He also joined the staff of the college paper, the Southwest Standard, eventually becoming editor. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English and French in 1960; he also has master’s in English from Southwest Missouri State.
After college he worked 19 years in Springfield, mainly at the Daily News, where became assistant managing editor. In 1979 he was named managing editor of The Coffeyville Journal in Kansas.
McMasters went to USA Today, then based in Rosslyn, Va., when it was getting started. In 1991, he was named associate editor of the editorial pages. Shortly after he arrived at the paper, McMasters joined SPJ at the insistence of founding editorial director John Seigenthaler Sr., who also asked him to research FOI issues.
McMasters became “one of the three or four people in the country who really understood, and understands, what the issue of freedom of information is all about, why we need a Freedom of Information Act, why open government is important if a democracy is to be viable,” Seigenthaler said. “He turned the issue inside out, upside down.”
McMasters worked with Seigenthaler to establish the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt.
The chance to work full-time “as a First Amendment advocate,” McMasters said, “was a dream come true.” He always felt rewarded in daily journalism, but now had “a great opportunity to … secure the future for not only journalists but for all Americans, who deserve the best free speech and free press rights that the First Amendment promises.”
He said one of his greatest accomplishments as ombudsman was establishing the annual National FOI Day Conference in 1997. Since then, he has organized and hosted the conference every March 16, which is National FOI Day.
It draws journalists, government officials, lawyers, librarians, educators and others. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that with the conference, McMasters has created a network of people concerned about freedom of information issues and a way for them to stay in contact.
“In all my efforts on behalf of the First Amendment,” McMasters said, “I have always included freedom of information … because I have always believed that freedom of speech and freedom of the press were pretty empty rights if citizens didn’t have access to government information to make their speech effective.”
With him retiring, McMasters and his wife, Priscilla, will to return to Springfield, Mo., where their daughter, Amy, and other family members live.
He will do consulting for The Freedom Forum, and hopes to do some writing and get involved with the local SPJ chapter. He wants to get back to some outside interests: photography and bird-watching.
Travel is not a priority. He has done his share, he said, covering “nearly 150,000 miles in one year” as SPJ president and “at least that in subsequent years, making speeches all over the world and in the United States.”
He and his wife look forward to catching up “on some living after having really been preoccupied with journalism, journalism organizations and the First Amendment pretty much 24/7.”