As winter turns to spring, it’s time again for SPJ to embark on its annual Capitol Hill visit, when leaders of our organization meet with staff people from key members of Congress and, often, important departments of the federal government. Last year, we began our Washington visit with a conversation with Beryl Howell, who had recently left the staff of Sen.
Thursday, Jan. 1 A man believing himself to be God appeared in the lobby of the Lewis and Clark Motel at 7:40 p.m. and refused to leave. He was later identified to be a 26-year-old man from Butte. They’re the kind of thing that might have been part of a script on the old “Andy Griffith Show”: Sunday, Feb.
“We used to ask Western, even American journalists, to come and teach our budding newsmen and women because we believed that they were the ones who hold best to the freedom of the press. After seeing what happened with the press during the Iraq war, our beliefs were shattered.”
The ovation had begun with warmth and admiration. Then, as people began to rise from their seats, it became something more, swelling and sustaining, even as the recipient of the applause sat down at his table near the stage. Roger Jewell had just received the Freedom of Information Committee’s final “Sunshine Award” of the 2003 SPJ National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
You don’t often get to make a fellow journalist cry. It happened in May in Nashville, Tenn., when a man named Bob Johnson stepped onto a podium amid thunderous applause and acknowledged his recognition as a hero. As he spoke to the assembled audience, his voice became choked with emotion and his eyes brimmed with tears born of joy, pride and surprise.
Talk about strange bedfellows. Gynecologists. Condom merchants. “Riotgrrl.” Not exactly the folks journalists would think of first when listing First Amendment allies. Yet, over the past seven years, they are among the entities SPJ has joined in significant First Amendment battles.
Keep your eyes on Illinois. Thanks in large measure to the Chicago Headline Club (the Chicago SPJ chapter), media organizations have worked with local government leaders and Illinois’ new attorney general to improve their state’s FOI climate, proving once again that when journalists knock on the door of government at the right time, all citizens can benefit.
Here’s a worthy New Year’s resolution for 2003 and 2004: Create a viable FOI coalition in every one of the 50 states. That’s the ambitious goal that SPJ and the National Freedom of Information Coalition have set for themselves. In May of this year, our two organizations will take what we hope will be a giant step toward achieving that goal.
Be accountable. I’ve believed for some time those two words represent the most challenging part of SPJ’s Code of Ethics. So while this column is about access to information, it’s also about being accountable. I also write this now because, by the time you read these words, America might be at war on a new front – Iraq.
MEDICAL PRIVACY As you’ve read in these pages and, perhaps, in other places during the past three years or so, the federal government wants to ensure that Americans’ medical records are kept safe from unauthorized use or distribution. A worthy goal, admittedly, but one that has left journalists – and, thus, the public’s interest – out in the cold.
Since our theme in this issue is journalism education, let’s conduct a small experiment. Take a look at the most recent issue of your community’s newspaper. Specifically, check the front page and the front of the Metro/Community/Local News section. How many stories do you see that have their origins in public records, a public meeting or a proceeding in open court?
More governments are closing meetings and records to the public. Bad signs in the news: Political leaders set ground rules for reporters as to what can and cannot be reported from a budget briefing. Government employees are barred from speaking with reporters about certain subjects.
Signs of early spring in Washington, D.C.: the first hints of blossoms on cherry trees. Irish pubs sprucing up for St. Patrick’s Day. SPJ leaders in congressional offices. On March 7 and 8, 2002, SPJ visited the nation’s capital to call on key members of the U.S.
One thing about writing on FOI issues – there’s never a lack of things going on. From dramatic changes in federal records policy to state legislators making frontal assaults on public access laws to government officials at all levels finding creative ways to subvert open meetings requirements.
This isn’t the column I set out to write. I had intended to look at hopeful signs amid the gloomy events that had characterized the FOI scene as we entered 2002. Then, on an otherwise routine Saturday afternoon in January, came news of a major highway accident near the town of Belt, Mont.,
ARLINGTON, VA – They gathered just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., ten days before Christmas. Newspaper editors. First Amendment advocates. Academics. Legal minds. Lobbyists. Leaders of local and national organizations. They came to think and talk and prepare for action.