Archive for February, 2007


SPJ member in critical condition

We’re sad to report that SPJ member Alana Rocha, a reporter for KWCH, Ch. 12 in Wichita, Kan., is in critical condition following a traffic accident early Saturday morning.

A man suspected of driving while intoxicated crashed into a car driven by Rocha, 24. Police say the man was trying to elude patrol officers when he blew through a stoplight and struck Rocha’s car. The man was treated for minor injuries at a local hospital and released.

Rocha had entertained a job candidate for an opening at KWCH and was driving home when the accident happened.

SPJ Region 7 Director Ron Sylvester, a staff writer at The Wichita Eagle, is keeping us posted. If you’d like to offer support or assistance for Alana Rocha, please contact him at rsylvester@spj.org.

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Hellooo! Anybody out there?!

Wake up, everybody! Where the heck are we?! This nation has a potential Offical Secrets Act on its hands — and at this hour, I’m seeing only ONE byline on the Web addressing the issue.

And even that news item was posted on a blog a week ago …

(Thank you, Rebecca Carr of the Austin American-Statesman, for being one of the few — and perhaps the only — journalist so far to do some smart reporting.)

The Kyl Amendment, people! It’s heckuva lot more important than Britney Spears’ baldness and rehab. And forget Anna Nicole Smith for a second, will you?

Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl plans to push through an amendment that essentially would create an Official Secrets Act. The “Kyl amendment,” as it’s called, would prohibit the disclosure and publication of information “concerning efforts by the United States to identify, investigate or prevent terrorist activity.”

The Sunshine in Government Initiative, of which SPJ is a part, stated: “Virtually any story related to homeland security, the war on terror or public safety threats could fall under this broad definition. Despite lots of discussion last year about unauthorized disclosures, including several congressional hearings, there’s been no public debate about this proposal.”

We must make some noise about this — and we don’t have much time. Kyl wants to tack this amendment onto S. 236, an unrelated bill that addresses data mining. He’ll get his chance Thursday during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s markup of the bill.

Please review a list of committee members, who come from the states of Alabama, Arizona, California, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin.

The text of the bill and Kyl’s proposed amendment

Kyl’s amendment is indicated in boldface.

§ 798. Disclosure of classified information

(a) Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information˜

(1) concerning the nature, preparation, or use of any code, cipher, or cryptographic system of the United States or any foreign government; or

(2) concerning the design, construction, use, maintenance, or repair of any device, apparatus, or appliance used or prepared or planned for use by the United States or any foreign government for cryptographic or communication intelligence purposes; or

(3) concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government; or

(4) obtained by the processes of communication intelligence from the communications of any foreign government, knowing the same to have been obtained by such processes or

(5) concerning efforts by the United States to identify, investigate, or prevent terrorist activity and shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.

Greater perspective and analysis from the Sunshine In Government Initiative

“Specifically, the amendment would prohibit unauthorized disclosure, publication or use of any information ‘concerning efforts by the United States to identify, investigate, or prevent terrorist activity.’ It also doubles from 10 to 20 years in prison the criminal penalty for violating any aspect of Section 798 of the Espionage Act, which is very narrowly drawn to prohibit disclosures of information relating to communications intelligence.

“The media understand that leaks of some government information about the war on terror can cause harm. But existing laws are adequate to protect the information that truly needs protecting. The Kyl amendment is so broad that it would make criminal the unauthorized disclosure of virtually any government information relating to terrorism. The amendment would also fundamentally alter the espionage statutes of the United States — a statutory regime that has served us well for over 80 years.

“Easing tensions over media coverage of national security matters involves better dialogue between government and the media, not new laws. Some conflict between government and the media is inevitable, and even healthy, in our democracy.

“At the same time, representatives of the media have supported and continue to support ongoing discussions among media and government representatives to reduce some of the current tensions and better serve the interests in both our nation’s security and an informed public. This dialogue has been formalized into an ongoing series of meetings now hosted by the Aspen Institute and involving high-level leaders in government and the media. This approach shows promise.

“We urge Congress’ continued support of and involvement in these discussions as a constructive way to address concerns over the potential harm from disclosure of legitimate national security secrets.”

Reasons to kill the Kyl amendment, according to the Sunshine in Government Initiative:

The amendment is vague and overly broad. “By defining the information whose disclosure or publication is prohibited to include any information ‘concerning efforts by the United States to identify, investigate or prevent terrorist activity,’ virtually any activity by government plausibly linked to security and other anti-terrorism activities would be covered by the statute.

“Such information would include emergency response planning, security failures, public safety and health threats and government funding of related activities and other matters routinely discussed in the media. The amendment would provide government officials a powerful tool to hide actions or facts that could be embarrassing to an agency.”

The proposed language is inconsistent with the existing statute it would amend. “This amendment is completely inconsistent with the information that Congress sought to protect by enacting Section 798. The statute is very narrowly limited to protection of communications intelligence information codes, ciphers and the like.

“In contrast, the proposed amendment encompasses a breathtakingly broad array of information that could plausibly be linked to anti-terrorism efforts.

“Sen. Kyl seeks to amend 18 USC 798, which is very narrowly drawn to criminalize the disclosure of communications intelligence information, or “COMINT” e.g., codes, cyphers and intercepted communications of our adversaries.

“When Congress enacted 798, it recognized the extremely important role that communications intelligence plays in our national security and so incorporated elements of proof that make it easier to prosecute an individual for disclosing COMINT than for disclosing other more routinely classified information – crimes that are prosecuted under 18 USC 793 and 794.

“For the most part, sections 793 and 794 require the government to prove that the individual intended to harm the United States. By contrast, section 798 requires the government to prove only that the information was ‘classified’ and that it relates to COMINT.

“If the Kyl amendment is adopted, the government would have vast power to prosecute an individual merely for ‘communicating’ or ‘publishing’ any information ‘concerning’ terrorism.

“The potential for abuse is significant and the chilling affect on the public’s — and Congress’ — right to know would be substantial.”

This amendment is so broad that it may be unconstitutional. “At a minimum, its vagueness imperils the effectiveness of section 798, a statute that seeks to protect some of our most vital secrets.

“For example, if the amendment is adopted and the government seeks to prosecute an individual for disclosing COMINT relating to terrorism, the courts may well throw the prosecution on constitutional grounds.”

The amendment would greatly increase the likelihood of prosecution under the Espionage Act. “Anyone who discloses information related to efforts by the United States to identify, investigate or prevent terrorist activity whether related to communications or not could be punished.”

This amendment may hamper the flow of information to the Congress and the general public. “The amendment precludes the public from obtaining information about government activities of great public interest. The language prevents the American public and likely many members of Congress from being fully informed about and knowledgably discussing actions taken in the name of the ‘war on terror.’

“The amendment would work to constrain critical reporting on homeland security, even information as basic as homeland security grants, as well as national security and foreign policy matters.

“The published stories that have attracted the greatest criticism for revealing sensitive information are unquestionably within the public interest and were published after careful consideration of government arguments for protecting specific information. Individuals with knowledge of the government activities in question raised significant questions regarding to their legality. At the very least, the stories have triggered a healthy national debate as to tension between security and liberty.”

The amendment hampers public involvement in anti-terrorism efforts. “This will make the ‘war on terror’ the exclusive province of a handful of intelligence agencies. It will further discourage information sharing in an area that has already been seriously hurt by a stovepipe culture within and among the agencies. The language runs counter to key 9/11 Commission recommendations that the federal government engage the public more effectively in anti-terrorism efforts.”

A proposal of this magnitude should have full and open public debate. In fairness to the American people and the seriousness of the issues involved, a measure of this magnitude and consequence should not be appended to a totally unrelated piece of legislation. The proposal would dramatically alter the relationship between the government and the press. This relationship has been defined in the U.S. constitution, and any significant change to it that is proposed should enjoy full and open debate.”

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Missing the point in Missouri

Several national SPJ leaders are watching carefully the shenanigans compromising the future of The Missouri Miner, the student newspaper serving The University of Missouri-Rolla.

Like many, if not most, student newspapers nationwide, The Miner collects the bulk (more than half, I’m told) of its funding from student fees. And like many campuses across the nation, the budgeting and expenditure of those fees is decided by a student council.

Sadly, UM-Rolla’s student council has decided to slash the campus newspaper’s budget by almost half — from roughly $40,000 to $26,000, according to a story in The Rolla (Mo.) Daily News.

That’s hardly enough to keep the campus paper going, Miner editor Chris Stryker told me. He’s determined to file suit against the university, claiming that the budget cuts harm Rolla students’ First Amendment rights. Stryker and a small band of student journalists are seeking legal representation.

There’s so much bothering me about this situation that it’s tough to know where to begin. Allow me to spit out a couple of bullets:

  • Media manipulation. According to The Rolla Daily News, after The Miner’s budget was cut, university officials working in the office of Student Affairs “offered the newspaper money on the side only if improvements were made, including better article topics, comprehensive editing for grammar and spelling errors, more accountability for mistakes, less opinionated stories and increased expectations for writers and their work.”

    Such an offer might be well intentioned, but it’s also indicative of folks who are clueless about the value — the necessity — of a free press. Stryker and his colleagues were smart to reject it.

    C’mon, university officials (and I’m not just talking to the folks in Rolla). You’re smarter than this. Students are learning, and they will make mistakes. They will write goofy stuff. They will write inaccurate and imbalanced stuff. But they need to be challenged and taught how to practice journalism responsibly — and dangling money over their heads in exchange for anything (which includes “better article topics” and “less opinionated stories”) is not the way to do it. Such vital lessons are hard to come by at colleges and universities that try to control the content of student media.

    For an idea of how a respectable institution should recognize its student news organizations, see SPJ’s Campus Media Statement. More colleges and universities should adopt it.

    Which brings me to …

  • The need to protect student newspapers from student councils that just don’t get it. It’s a shame I don’t have a dime for every time student politicos have attacked student news organizations for the silliest reasons. To get what they want (which is often revenge for news coverage they don’t like), these student politicians often slash the student news orgs’ funding. The really sad thing: They typically get away with it.

    SPJ’s Campus Media Statement says, in part, “Administrators, faculty, staff or other agents shall not consider the student media’s content when making decisions regarding the media’s funding …”

    To help ensure that happens, university officials and student journalists should work together to create new structures by which campus news organizations are funded. The system in place at Rolla (and too many other colleges and universities) is akin to having the state of New York sign off on funding for The New York Times. No one questions the lunacy of that scenario. The one playing itself out in Rolla is no different.

    I’m not letting student news organizations off the hook, either. I wish more of them would seek financial independence. I realize that’s much easier said than done — but I hope more student news orgs will make this effort. It would be wonderful if they followed the brave and laudable example set last month by Clemson University’s student newspaper, The Tiger. That newspaper decided to give up the roughly $25,000 in student fees it has accepted annually after student-government officials challenged the newspaper’s need to pay student journalists for their work.

    Similar questions about payments to student journalists launched the sad situation now brewing at UM-Rolla.

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    Stand up to She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named

    Former Santa Barbara News-Press editor Jerry Roberts is one nice guy who deserves tremendous respect, and what he has had to endure in the last year is utterly ridiculous, shameful — and idiotic.

    Though I could go on, I’ll stop there lest someone — such as, oh, say, Wendy McCaw, the N-P’s publisher (also known among some journalists as “She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”) — files suit against me.

    Roberts was smart enough to leave that newsroom following breaches of journalism ethics. Dozens of his former colleagues have followed him. The Society paid tribute to several of those journalists with national ethics awards last year.

    And then the blizzard of silly lawsuits started. Roberts, for example, has been socked with a $25 million arbitration claim. Susan Paterno, who wrote a smart and thorough account of the N-P’s troubles for American Journalism Review, is also staring down the barrell of a multimillion-dollar suit. (Media lawyer Charles “Chuck” Tobin of Holland & Knight in Washington, D.C., is representing Paterno. Take a look at his legal argument, which states that the war being waged against Paterno is “… yet another effort by a wealthy and powerful public figure to sue its critics into silence.” [PDF, 1.5 MB])

    One of the sad things about these legal shenangians is that they’ve been launched at journalists who — let’s face it — don’t have deep pockets. Certainly not pockets as deep as billionaire McCaw’s.

    Take a look at Roberts’ appeal for help, pasted below — and please, please, please consider joining this effort.

    Dear colleagues, friends and supporters,

    I was humbled and honored to be among nine journalists, all formerly on the staff of the Santa Barbara News-Press, given a National Ethics in Journalism Award several months ago by the Society of Professional Journalists.

    The SPJ, after an independent investigation of the extraordinary events in Santa Barbara, awarded the honor to a group of us who felt forced to leave the paper last summer because of concerns over the ethics of management decisions involving news coverage. Our group, the SPJ citation said, “opted to risk their livelihoods rather than remain in a position where they felt their journalistic ethics and professional credibility were being violated.”

    Amid the ongoing exodus of dozens of professional journalists from the News-Press, the paper’s owner has filed a flurry of legal threats, claims and lawsuits against people who dared to speak out or report about what was happening in the newsroom.

    In response, a group of prominent local attorneys formed the Lawyers Alliance for Free Speech Rights, to help level the playing field for journalists who found themselves bludgeoned by legal attacks by Ampersand Publishing, owned by billionaire Wendy McCaw.

    I am one of those journalists, now facing a $25 million arbitration claim filed by the company.

    Colleagues and friends put together a web site — www.jerryrobertsandfriends.org — to help the Alliance help me and other journalists fight back.

    Please take a few minutes to review the events at the paper by reading the stories on this site. And then please make a donation to the Lawyers Alliance for Free Speech Rights, in defense of the values, standards and ethics of public interest journalism.

    Thanks for your consideration.

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    No good deed goes unpunished …

    Oh, the e-mail flying around my inbox this morning.

    First came the link to Connecticut lawyer Norm Pattis’ blog item headlined, “Dear Snotty Bitch: Back off.” (He would be referring to me.)

    Whatever. I’ve been called far worse. (And for the record, Mr. Pattis: I’m anything but snotty — except when I have a cold. Had I been your editor, I would have changed that word to “bossy,” “stubborn,” “demanding,” or “impatient.” Maybe even to the phrase “precise-to-the-point-of-being-royally-annoying.” I know my character flaws. Snotty? Pretentious? Nope. Not me.)

    But for Mr. Pattis to insult SPJ and some of its tireless volunteers while mangling the details of events leading up to a statement the Society released yesterday in defense of his client, Ken Krayeske?

    Allow me to be precise to the point of being royally annoying.

  • Mr. Krayeske, a freelance journalist with a history of political activism that has gotten him in trouble with the law, was arrested in January during the inaugural parade of Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
  • Mr. Krayeske sought financial support from SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund and sent an application to LDF committee members for consideration. Someone on the committee unfamiliar with the Society’s practices posted that application, which contained personal information, on the Society’s Web site. SPJ national leaders and Mr. Krayeske asked committee members to remove that information from the Web site immediately. The committee did so, and the Society apologized to Mr. Krayeske.
  • Mr. Krayeske still wanted to be considered for an LDF grant. The LDF committee conducted a standard investigation of his background and claims. While the committee was doing that work, Mr. Krayeske called the committee’s chairman to say he’d raised enough money to cover his legal expenses and that he wouldn’t need an LDF grant after all. However, he asked that SPJ reconsider his request should his legal expenses rise above current levels. SPJ officials agreed to do so.
  • The Society dropped the matter — until Mr. Krayeske contacted me in late January, asking that SPJ please issue a statement supporting him.
  • The Society takes such requests seriously. And when there are questions about a person’s claims, there is thoughtful review and debate. I’m not going to apologize for what might appear to be sluggishness when it comes to stewarding SPJ’s valuable (and limited) resources and lending SPJ’s good name to public debates.
  • I tasked members of SPJ’s national LDF, freedom of information and journalism ethics committees with considering Mr. Krayeske’s request. These volunteers — nearly a dozen journalists who live outside Connecticut — graciously gave up several hours they could have spent on other things. They took less than a week to make recommendations that resulted in the statement SPJ released yesterday.

    Shortly after that statement’s distribution, I received this note from Mr. Krayeske:

    Subject : Thank You

    I just saw the press release, and I am deeply appreciative of the statement.

    I have sent it out to my press contacts here in CT, and hopefully it gets some attention.

    Thanks you again for your support.

    Peace, Ken Krayeske

    SPJ’s statement got attention all right. Clearly, Mr. Pattis’ blog suggests he didn’t see it coming — an indication that he and Mr. Krayeske have some communication issues they need to work out.

    Or maybe Mr. Pattis’ rant is part of some brilliant legal strategy! Mr. Krayeske sent another e-mail to an SPJ official today. It states, in part:

    “While I am grateful for SPJ’s support, as I have expressed, I think my lawyer is working in my best interests. I think his reaction was to the timing of this, more than anything else. I am sorry if it confused people in SPJ.”

    We’re not the ones who are confused. We’re just the ones who, regardless of childish insults posted about us on blogs, believe that people who stand peacefully in public places to take photos of public events don’t deserve to be arrested.

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    Meaningful FOIA reform on the horizon?

    The U.S. House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and the National Archives met today to discuss the need for reform of the Freedom of Information Act.

    The Sunshine in Government Initiative, of which SPJ is a part, has pushed hard for meaningful FOIA reform.

    Today’s hearing, aimed at bringing new legislators up to speed on this issue, included testimony on behalf of the news media. The coalition chose former Knight Ridder Washington Bureau Chief Clark Hoyt to testify not only because of his interest in open government, but also because of his insider knowledge of federal open-government issues. Hoyt relied heavily on federal documents when reporting for Knight Ridder on the Iraq War, and he has become increasingly frustrated over the years by the U.S. Department of Justice’s litigation tactics.

    The complete text of Hoyt’s testimony is available through this link [PDF, 116 KB].

    This summary of today’s hearing is provided by Laurie Babinski of Baker Hostetler in Washington, D.C., SPJ’s legal counsel:

    “The representatives’ comments and questions today confirmed that, as a result of our efforts, we are hitting the right note with the subcommittee members.

    “Each of the representatives present, many of whom are new, appeared to fully understand the need for effective FOIA reform and see the merit in the provisions the coalition has been pushing to have drafted into the bill: the creation of an ombudsman within each government agency, increased reporting requirements, penalties for non-compliance and attorneys’ fees.

    “Linda Koontz, director of information management for the Government Accountability Office, and Melanie Ann Pustay, acting director of the Office of Information and Privacy at the Department of Justice, testified on the first panel on behalf of the government.

    “Koontz and Pustay testified that government agencies, as mandated by Executive Order 13392, are trying to fix the FOIA system through internal measures that haven’t yet been fully implemented and thus cannot be evaluated. (Issued in December 2005, the Executive Order calls for agencies to review FOIA procedures, set a plan to cure defects in the FOIA process, make progress to fall in line with those plans, and report that progress back to Congress).

    “Though they argued that congressional intervention is unnecessary at this time, Koontz and Pustay did concede that certain minor fixes to FOIA reporting requirements – such as requiring the agencies to report mean, rather than median, average process times – may be useful.

    “Subcommittee members Reps. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and Bill Sali (R-Idaho) were present for at least a portion of this afternoon’s hearing, during which Koontz and Pustay underwent tough questioning in response to several of their statements.

    “In particular, Rep. Hodes pushed for an answer about whether the Executive Order could be relied on as an effective open-government reform in light of the Ashcroft Memorandum. (Issued in October 2001, the Ashcroft Memorandum asks that ‘any discretionary decision … to disclose information protected under the FOIA should be made only after full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial, and personal privacy interests that could be implicated by disclosure of the information’ and emphasizes that the Department of Justice will defend decisions to withhold information unless they lack a ‘sound legal basis.’ The Ashcroft Memorandum a marked departure from the memorandum it superseded, the Reno Memorandum, which requested the discretionary withholding of information only if there was a ‘foreseeable harm’ that could result from its release.)

    “Pustay testified that the Ashcroft Memorandum did not change the substantive law of FOIA and would thus have no effect on compliance with the Executive Order.

    “Additional questions focused on the extent of the government’s backlog of FOIA requests, efforts to educate FOIA officers and denials of routine information.

    Clark Hoyt of McClatchy Newspapers (and on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative), Caroline Fredrickson of the ACLU and Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archives at George Washington University testified on behalf of open-government reform.

    “In his opening remarks, Hoyt emphasized the importance of investigative stories, such as Chris Adams’ recent article on the Department of Veterans Affairs’ treatment of soldiers with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Hoyt spoke about some of the obstacles that arise when a reporter such as Adams attempts to use FOIA to break such stories. Hoyt then suggested that any meaningful reform should include the four provisions noted above.

    Throughout his testimony, Hoyt gained credibility by emphasizing that the Sunshine in Government Initiative wants to build bipartisan support for what it considers a purely procedural bill. This stood in stark contrast to Fredrickson’s subsequent testimony, in which the ACLU took the politically charged position that the Bush Administration has intentionally made it harder to obtain records sought under FOIA.

    Meredith Fuchs, who testified last, said that the National Security Archives supports the recommendations made by the Sunshine in Government Initiative.

    Hoyt leveraged his credibility, and the subcommittee’s members appeared receptive to his recommendations. At Rep. Turner’s request, the Sunshine in Government Initiative agreed to provide a draft bill to the subcommittee for its consideration.

    We will continue to work with Rep. Henry Waxman’s staff and the subcommittee members in drafting the provisions of the new bill — especially the ombudsman provision, which is being retooled after discussion with committee staff who disfavored placing the ombudsman within an agency’s Inspector General’s office.

    The committee is still tentatively looking to have the bill on the House floor by March. We will update you with additional information as it becomes available.”

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    SPJ’s first African-American member …

    … was my good friend, Lester H. Brownlee.

    Les, as he was called, was inducted into SPJ (then known as Sigma Delta Chi) in 1947 while studying at Northwestern University (he earned his master’s degree in journalism from NU in 1951). He went on to work across media — newspapers, radio and television — and broke down color barriers in several Chicago newsrooms.

    Les died at age 90 in November 2005 — but not before he managed to write his recently released autobiography titled, Les Brownlee: The Autobiography of a Pioneering African-American Journalist. Brownlee
    Brownlee Brownlee Logo
    Chicagoans associate this image with the Les Brownlee Journalism Series. The logo was designed by
    SPJ Web Adminstrator Billy O’Keefe, one of Brownlee’s former students at Columbia College Chicago.
    Looking for inspiration, wisdom and a healthy dose of humor? You’ll find them in this book. Just a few of the anecdotes I never tired of hearing Les share:

  • The death of his father, a minister, from appendicitis.The elder Mr. Brownlee died because the then “all-white” Evanston Hospital refused to admit a black man. Oh, the irony: Les died in that same hospital several decades later.
  • His departure from home. Les was a teenager when his mother implored him to leave. “Every time some little emergency came up, you dipped into your savings,” she told him. “You’ll never get an education as long as you stay here and let us bleed you.”

    She went on:

    “… Heaven knows this is one of the worst communities you could possibly live in. The white people here are so bigoted that they will go out of their way to keep you down. And the police will make a criminal out of you if you remain here. The colored people here have just given up. Very few of them have a dream that goes beyond Saturday night’s pay.”

    An Winnetka, Ill., police officer eventually found Les sleeping in that city’s train station and hauled him to a jail cell. What happened next changed Les’ life. That officer probably never figured the young, black man he rounded up would be a first several times over. Les was a pioneer in the U.S. military, the media and journalism education.

  • His boyhood follies with lifelong friend Arthur C. Nielsen Jr., who went on to build the A.C. Nielsen empire. Long before they headed into the professional world, “Les and Art” had plenty of fun. And it was Les’ smarts, good humor and dogged determination that won the admiration of A.C. Nielsen Sr., who provided Les with some financial support during his undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin. A.C. Nielsen Jr.’s generous donation to the Chicago Headline Club, SPJ’s largest chapter, launched the Les Brownlee Journalism Series in 2002.
  • His self-described “sharp, damn sharp, but sensitive and humane” approach to reporting. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, who studied journalism under Les, wrote a foreward that summed up Les’ reporting style beautifully:

    “He would tell us about the power of that reporter’s notebook, how intimidating it could be to folks who’d been minding their own business until they were hit with something that an editor deemed newsworthy.

    “The last thing they needed was some reporter descending upon them, notbook ready, a stranger eager to fix their lives in print and judge them with a stranger’s words, as butterfly collectors fix insects with pins on a board.

    “Les would tell us: Keep the notebook in your pocket for a while. Get to know the people. Talk to them. Treat them like human beings. Don’t ever treat them like the subjects of some study. If you wait, and treat them with respect and let them fil in the blank spaces in a conversation, the’re more apt to tell you what they’re thinking.”

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    Thinking of Helen Thomas

    PhotoEvents where journalists and politicians hang out for an evening — and enjoy themselves as they do — make me queasy, but I’m always happy to make an exception for the annual congressional dinner of the Washington Press Club Foundation.

    Especially this year. The 850 attendees of the 63rd annual fete — which raised money for scholarships for women and minorities — honored veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas with a lifetime achievement award. You can read all about the soiree in The Washington Post.

    SPJ honored Helen with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 and named the accolade after her. I hope you’ll nominate someone to receive the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award by our March 15 deadline.

    Helen is one of my heroes. I love that she was determined to be a journalist when newsrooms weren’t welcoming of women. I love that she’s one of SPJ’s most devoted members. I love that Helen’s journalism always has been based on the tenets of SPJ’s Ethics Code and on hardnosed, no-holes-barred questioning of the powerful. I love that Helen answers her own phone and that she’ll stop what she’s doing to give career advice and encouragement to the nervous, young journalists who approach her.

    I once was one of those nervous, young journalists. Helen spoke at a national SPJ conference in Baltimore when I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I briefly explained that I was scrambling to build my portfolio in anticipation of my first big job search. I told Helen I was scared I wouldn’t find work.

    She smiled and wrote in my program, “You can, and you will. Hang in there.”

    I kept that booklet on my dorm-room desk for the rest of the school year. And when I got that first job, that booklet remained on my desk in the newsroom.

    Fast forward to 1999, when I was chairwoman of SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund. During another national conference, Helen graciously agreed to let me raise money for the fund by auctioning off two dances with her. One would be with a student, the other with a journalism pro.

    I opened the bid for the student crowd at $25, thinking even that might be too rich for their blood. Boy, was I wrong! Soon, several students from the same university were throwing money into the center of the table at which they sat (“They won’t do laundry for a month,” I thought). Those students collectively scraped together about $200 to dance with Helen.

    I still laugh when I remember Helen strutting her stuff on the dance floor while encircled by about a dozen college students. If memory serves me correctly, they were shimmying to, “She’s a Brick House.”

    When I auctioned the second dance with Helen to the working pros in the room, the bidding quickly reached $900. Former SPJ National President Steve Geimann, who worked for several years with Helen at UPI, was in the lead.

    Helen was busy gabbing and hadn’t paid attention to the bidding. But when she heard that $900 figure, she snapped to attention.

    “Who’s got the high bid?” she asked me.

    When I told her, Helen shouted out, “$950 so I don’t have to dance with him!”

    She was joking, of course. Helen and Steve danced the night away.

    Spring ahead to October 2002. I invited Helen to give a keynote address during the Chicago Headline Club’s inaugural Les Brownlee Journalism Series, a celebration of Chicago journalism held in honor (and now memory) of the first African-American inducted into SPJ.

    Helen let the room of more than 300 people have it. She urged journalists to question — relentlessly challenge and question — the United States’ increasingly tense relations with Iraq. She warned that federal officials would conduct a great deal of business in secret and under the guise of “national security.”

    And this was before the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003.

    Jump to SPJ’s 2004 national conference in New York City. Helen allowed me to auction off lunch with her to benefit the Society’s Legal Defense Fund. Two bidders duked it out. When the winning bid hit $4,000, the “runner-up” said she would match it if Helen would have lunch with her, too. Two lunches with Helen Thomas: $8,000 for a great cause. Priceless.

    I have other fond memories of Helen. She was the woman in red I watched lob questions at President Reagan. She always had the last word at White House press conferences (“Thank you, Mr. President.”), which I watched carefully even as a young girl (Yes, I knew as a fourth grader that I wanted to become a journalist).

    And while I wish I could say I have served alongside Helen in a particular newsroom or on a particular assignment, I’m content with my brief encounters with greatness.

    Surely, some of you have a fond memory of Helen. A meeting with her. A question she asked during a press conference. Something she’s written or said. Please consider sharing your thoughts here.

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