Here’s what’s really sorry about journalism these days: the number of journalists who do little or nothing to improve and protect it.
Showing up for work every day, breaking the occasional big story and filing a freedom-of-information request every few years doesn’t make you a stalwart of the First Amendment. And please spare me the lectures about how journalists should never ask lawmakers for anything. No, journalists shouldn’t be in the business of lobbying Congress, but sometimes there are matters that so threaten what we do — and the integrity of the information we present the public — that we must use whatever leverage we can to change the law.
That leverage includes coverage of efforts that stand to undermine a free press and the free flow of public information. But lately, the news media have devoted far more attention to Britney’s hair extensions and Lindsay’s latest stint in rehab.
When U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., tried in February and March to shove through — without public debate, I might add — what would have amounted to an Official Secrets Act, shamefully few news organizations bothered to report it. The Kyl Amendment, as it’s commonly called, would have made it illegal to publish classified information. On the eve of what appeared to be a Senate vote, I conducted dozens of Web searches and found only one short story written by Rebecca Carr of the Austin American-Statesman. That day, everyone else was tracking the whereabouts of recently deceased Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith.
The news media largely fell down on the job again in late May, when a cowardly senator placed a “secret hold” on the Open Government Act of 2007. Once more, it was easier to find information about Britney’s fake hair than to get details about a bill that stood to be the most significant reform in decades of the federal Freedom of Information Act. That the anonymous hold derailing the bill came down just as everyone was leaving for the long Memorial Day weekend made the hold all the more despicable.
This time, however, the Society of Professional Journalists sprang into action. Our members’ determination to unmask “Senator Secrecy” was an example of journalism advocacy I will never forget. Hundreds of members contacted their senators to identify the one behind the secret hold. In only a few days, Kyl was unmasked, and he was forced to issue a press release acknowledging his action.
Once Kyl owned up to his dirty deed, SPJ pounced again thanks to Charles Davis (now there’s a First Amendment stalwart for you), a member of the Society’s Freedom of Information Committee and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. Davis whipped out a blistering column that appeared in more than 180 publications.
Had SPJ members not gotten angry and active, I seriously doubt this important issue would have received much news coverage.
It is time for more of us to get angry and active. It is time for us to complain loudly and unapologetically about the issues undermining First Amendment freedoms. It is time for more editorial page editors to make room in their sections for analysis of issues negatively affecting journalism. And it is time for more television journalists to cover these issues despite concerns that they don’t make “good TV.”
We journalists also must band together to wage these battles. SPJ provides us some of the leverage we need to fight the good fight. It is one of the few journalism organizations in the country with the power to lobby, and its national, grassroots network champions journalism far more effectively than we as individuals ever could.
Christine Tatum is an assistant features editor/online features editor for The Denver Post. Before moving to Colorado in 2003, she worked for The Chicago Tribune as a media hybrid, covering technology for the newspaper, producing the tech section of chicagotribune.com and appearing weekly to discuss technology news on CLTV, a local station owned by the Tribune Co. Her career stops also include Tribune Media Services, The Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill., and The News & Record of Greensboro, N.C. Tatum is a North Carolina native and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.