Archive for May, 2007

And we have a winner! Er, Loser!

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has admitted that he put a secret hold on the Open Government Act of 2007.

The bill would significantly reform the federal Freedom of Information Act, which is one of the strongest tools Americans have to supervise the inner workings of government and to hold elected officials accountable.

Ryan Patmintra, Kyl’s press secretary, confirmed that Kyl placed the hold to allow for more negotiations among him, bill co-sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and the U.S. Justice Department. It’s no secret that Kyl has concerns about the Open Government Act, Patmintra said.

If Sen. Kyl’s concerns are no secret, then why would he insist on working from the shadows to place a hold on this very important legislation? The irony of secretly blocking a vote on a bill that would make government more transparent is supreme. Sen. Kyl should feel pretty silly.

Kyl is behind another bill that concerns SPJ. Known as the Kyl Amendment, it would criminalize the leaking — and publishing — of classified information.

So, Sen. Kyl is “Senator Secrecy” in more ways than one.

Thanks to so many SPJ supporters who made calls and made noise. Please keep up the heat. Kyl says he plans to continue blocking this vote until his “concerns” are addressed. For more background information gathered during this process, check out one of my previous posts.

Senators who should be ashamed of themselves — and their staff

As we work to smoke out Senator Secrecy (bear in mind, we could be looking for more than one person), just wanted to share with you some of the comments I have received from SPJ members who have placed calls. I’ll add more as they roll in  …

From Linda Heuring in South Carolina:

“Jim DeMint’s office staff told me they have no way to get information on whether on not the senator placed the hold.  Amazing.  They sent me to the Senate Republican Steering Committee, which has a full voice mailbox and disconnects me after the full recording with a cheery ‘Goodbye.'”

From Joey Senat in Oklahoma:

“The SPJ list of senators could use a third option: Won’t answer.

“Just called Sen. Inhofe’s D.C. office to ask if he placed the secret hold. Rather than answer my question, the young woman answering the phone kept explaining that the purpose of a secret hold was to keep it anonymous. Kept telling her that I understood what ‘secret’ meant and that the irony of this hold was astounding. That seemed to go over her head. Also told her that Coburn’s office claims he isn’t the one and that a growing list of other senators also are claiming innocence. That seemed to confuse her, but she finally put me through to a staffer’s voice mail. I left a message and will keep calling.

All those reporters in DC can’t find out who did this???”

(My 2 cents: That’s right, Joey, the amount of news coverage devoted to this important issue is truly appalling. I just Googled — “Open Government Act” secret — and came up with only FIVE articles about this. FIVE. I’m nearly coming unglued about the palty attention the media are giving this matter … Bet we’ll see plenty of coverage today of Lindsay Lohan’s latest stint in rehab though.)

Here’s what a very nice young woman named Laura Henderson in the office of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told me:

“We don’t comment on any holds. It’s a longtime office policy from what I understand.”

(My 2 cents: Laura, question that longtime policy. It’s ridiculous. And here’s something else for you — and everyone — to note: SPJ is officially reporting Shelby as a “No Comment,” but we KNOW he didn’t place this hold.)

While we’re all thinking about the cowardly “secret hold,” it’s worth noting that there are some senators who despise it and are even actively championing to do away with it. Also from my e-mail inbox:

From Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) office:

Senator Wyden does NOT have a secret hold on the Open Government Act.  In fact, he has worked for years to end the practice of secret holds.  Toward this end, he always makes it public when he places a hold by putting a notice in the Congressional Record.

Thank you,

Melissa Merz
Communications Director

As relayed by Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-MD) counsel:

SPJ gang–

I love the project!  And for the record, it wasn’t Sen. Mikulski. She hates secret holds and didn’t do it, her counsel Erin Corcoran told me.
Nice job, y’all!
Rick Blum, Coordinator, Sunshine in Government Initiative
According to a spokeswoman for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), with whom I spoke:
“He doesn’t believe in secret holds. He and Sen. Wyden have been campagining against secret holds for several years. And Sen. Grassley has adopted a personal policy that if he has an objection to something, he’ll place a statement in the Congressional Record. The secret hold is a senate procedure and a courtesy, not a rule. Various leaders have said along the way that they would handle the procedure differently, but that hasn’t happened.”
From David Hughey: I called Senator Hutchison’s Abilene office yesterday to ask if she put the hold on the Bill sponsored by Leavy and Cornyn (S.849). I called back today and was transfered to the Austion office. I asked the same question and they told me the person I spoke to yesterday was traveling and they wanted me to call her back tomorrow. I said I would.

The Open Government Act sponsored by Leahy and Cornyn is Bill S.849 and there is a Congresional Budget Office Cost estimate prepared for it. (I have not read it yet).

Mr. Leahy, noted in the Congressional Record, as you already know, that, “Regrettably, an anonymous Republican hold is stalling this important Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, legislation, needlessly delaying long-overdue reforms to strengthen FOIA and to protect the public’s right to know.” (Senate-May 24, 2007, page S6829). So the hold is a Republican Senator.

He also noted that there were 10 Senators “from both sides of the aisle” who had cosponsored this Bill. Cosponsors are: (Mr. Specter [PN}, Mr. Feingold [D-WI], Mr. Kerry [D-MA] (3-15, pg. S3201); and Mr. Isakson [R-GA] (3-21, pg. S3517; and Mr. Brown [D-OH] (3-27, pg. S3836); and Mr. Cardin [D-MD] (4-10, pg. S430; and Ms. Landrieu [D-LA] (4-30, pg. S5306); and Mr. Sanders [I-VT] (5-16, pg. S6193); and Mr. Durbin [D-IL] (5-21, pg. S6399) I missed a cosponsor somewhere (I found nine) and THOMAS is not fully updated yet on this Bill and all the cosponsors.

On May 21 there appears to be an amendment SA 1147(Amendments submitted and proposed, pg. S6408): “Mr. LEAHY (for himself and Mr. Cornyn) submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by him to the bill S. 849, to promote accessibility, and openness in Government by strengthening section 552 of title 5, United States Code (commonly referred to as the Freedom of Information Act), and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table.”

It appears the Bill left the Judiciary Committee after that….

I did notice that last year (in the 109th Congress) Senator Cornyn submitted Bill S.394 with six cosponsors (Senators Alexander [TN], Feingold [WI], Isakson [GA], Johnson [SD], Leahy [VT], and Nelson [NE]). That Bill was almost identical to the current Bill S.849. S.394 (109th Congress) had a related bill submitted in the House by Rep. Lamar Smith [TX-21], H.R. 867 that had 31 cosponsors from the House. The last action I found for S.394 was placing it on the Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders. Calendar No. 628.

I am learning as I go …

The anti-drug advocate, her drunk-driving arrest and her defamation suit

Boy, this is one recent federal court opinion worth a look-see [PDF, 151 KB].

Some quick background to pique your interest:

A woman who served as vice chairman of an anti-drug task force in Indiana was arrested in 2003 on suspicion of driving while under the influence.

The local paper, The Times of Northwest Indiana, covered the arrest. The paper quoted the arresting officer as saying that the woman “was the most obnoxious drunken female I have ever arrested.” (Word of advice: refrain from telling law enforcement officers that your jewelry is worth more than their salaries.)

The paper also turned up details about another encounter the woman had with law enforcement (let’s just say it involved a riverboat casino and honorary law enforcement badge …). The paper eventually editorialized — complete with a cartoon that essentially declared her denial as profound as O.J. Simpson’s — that the woman, not local law enforcement agencies, was to blame for her own public disgrace.

The woman filed suit against the paper, alleging defamation.

Read for yourself how U.S. District Judge James T. Moody sorted the details of this humdinger to issue a thoughtful ruling that provides an interesting refresher-course in media law.

Help us out a coward (or two or three)!

Hustling right now to make a few phone calls. Hope you will, too.

“Senator Secrecy” is out there somewhere, and I want him or her (unfortunately, more than one may be deserving of the title) unmasked as soon as possible. The sooner, the better so that we can out the slimy politician who placed a SECRET HOLD on a bill that would make government more transparent. The timing  — just as everyone is preparing to tune out over the long Memorial Day weekend — makes this all the more despicable.

If I could take one guess at who is responsible for this, I’d say Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ).

Some quick background: On April 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the Open Government Act, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). The bill would strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act, which is one of the most powerful tools Americans have to supervise the inner workings of government. More than 100 organizations support the bill, which would reduce delays in releasing government records and hold public officials accountable when they break the law. (Are you listening, DOJ?)

The U.S. House of Representatives (take a look at the testimony offered during a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and the National Archives) overwhelmingly approved a similar measure last month — but that bill was blocked from reaching the Senate floor for a May 24 vote.

“It is unfortunate and ironic that this bipartisan bill, which promotes sunshine and openness in our government, is being hindered by a secret and anonymous hold,” Leahy said, according to The Austin American-Statesman.

Amen. Americans should question this ridiculous parliamentary maneuver that allows legislators to place secret holds on legislation. If  legislators feel so passionately about pending legislation, they should have the guts to speak up publicly. Delaying action from the shadows is cowardly.

Apparently, Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat who represents my “home state” of Colorado, agrees.

“The senator is committed to conducting holds in the open,” Salazar’s spokesman told me today. (For what it’s worth, Salazar’s office and the office of Sen. Wayne Allard (R-CO) tell me neither man placed the hold on this bill.)

(Side note: I am once again saluting Rebecca Carr of the AA-S. She has reported on matters that have, sadly, escaped much of the national media. I’m also thrilled by recent CNN coverage of secret spending of taxpayers’ money handled by Reporter Drew Griffin and Producer Kathleen Johnston. Look for the headline “Secret Spending of Tax Money.” Boy, do more journalists need to wake up to these issues. There is no magical editor, producer or lawyer who is handling all of these attacks on open government …)

If you’re a reporter working on deadline over the holiday weekend, and you’d like to chat with me about this matter, please drop me a line at You also can reach me on my mobile phone.

U.S. Senate gallery needs has been around since 1998, and I gotta be honest: it has helped me both professionally and personally over the years.

This small, online news organization run on a relatively shoestring budget and with a small staff is downright scrappy. You can find stories about almost everything that has anything to do with buying, selling, trading, insuring, manufacturing and legislating stuff. Product reviews. Alerts about product recalls, consumer scams and consumers’ complaints. All of that and much, much more is on

The site’s solid mission is admirable — which is why it’s troubling that reporter Joe Enoch has been booted from the U.S. Senate’s press gallery.

According to, gallery officials are questioning whether the site is a “legitimate journalistic enterprise.” The site also noted in a story that its business model has been questioned.

“We try to bring in enough money from advertising each month to keep the lights on,” said James R. Hood, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief. Hood formerly worked as top editor of the Associated Press’ broadcast operations, and he is co-author of the AP Broadcast News Handbook. He founded Zapnews, eventually bought by the Christian Broadcasting Network and then sold to ABC News.

Let’s just say Hood — and his small staff — are legit. They deserve to retain their seat in the Senate gallery. Gallery officials should reinstate the online news organization’s credentials immediately. Blocking from Senate hearings is essentially blocking the public from having access to vital information that doesn’t always make big headlines (Case in point: the organization’s coverage of troubles with Honda CR-V and Element models. I just Googled news of a suit filed against Honda, and the only story popping up is from — and Hood wrote it.)

All of this raises interesting questions (Yes, it’s worth wondering whether the gatekeepers are trying to free up a seat for some blogger they’re paying on the down-low to write nice things about the Bush administration — but that’s not one of my questions) about the rise of online media. While I think should be in the Senate gallery, I do wonder how gallery officials should determine who gets a credential. They’ve got limited space and a exploding array of news organizations to deal with.

Any ideas? Issues of meeting access are obviously issues on the local and state levels, too.

CJR editor deserves a dart

One of the most interesting and invaluable aspects of serving as SPJ’s president is to experience what it’s like to be written about by other journalists.

Boy, have I seen some shoddy reporting and unfair stories that not only have appalled me but have made me even more determined to ensure my work is accurate, honest and fair.

Which brings me to Gloria Cooper, and the long-running “Darts and Laurels” column in the Columbia Journalism Review. Given my encounters with Ms. Cooper, I’m puzzled that her title is “deputy executive editor.”

The Darts and Laurels column in CJR’s latest edition awards a laurel to SPJ’s national ethics committee for working diligently to ensure that a recent deal SPJ established with PR-wire company MarketWire was consistent with SPJ’s core missions and ethics statement. I wholeheartedly agree that the committee should be praised for its attention to this particular matter.

While Ms. Cooper didn’t award me a “dart,” she may as well have done so. You can read the article for yourself and see that she paints me in the same negative light as the some of the harshest critics (who are very few in number, I might add) of what has become known as the “MarketWire deal.” In that light, I am a journalist who is eager to see the news and PR industries making nice with, and cozying up to, one another. I am willing to foresake SPJ’s “cherished code of ethics” for money.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have cut a lot of reporters (particularly those in college) a lot of slack since my presidential term started in August. If the quote wasn’t precise but managed to convey my point, I’ve let it slide. If my name and title were a little goofy, I haven’t said anything. I even have shrugged off a couple of minor, factual inaccuracies because I understood the tight deadlines under which the journalists who called me were working.

Gloria Cooper, deputy executive editor of CJR, has finally prompted me to blow a whistle — and to do so loudly. What I have observed of her reporting I share here with hopes it’ll help all of us (as in me, too) be better journalists.

I’m also elaborating here because Ms. Cooper’s item insinuates that SPJ national leaders and I are trying to hide from the world controversy that surrounded this matter — and I want to assure everyone, particularly SPJ members, that that isn’t the case. Want to know anything about this organization? Drop me a line, or give me a ring, and I’ll be happy to give you the good, the bad and the ugly. In detail. For hours.

Observation No. 1: It helps when you report the facts. Ms. Cooper’s item states that SPJ officials considered “terms of the (MarketWire) proposal” that included “sharing the development of the curriculum” with the PR-wire company. Ummm, nope. SPJ officials said from the start that this organization — and this organization alone — would develop and control any content presented during MarketWire-hosted seminars. We’ve never deviated from that stance. Period. When you can’t get facts straight, you leave your reporting open to allllll sorts of criticism.

Observation No. 2: It’s easy — but unwise and annoying to interviewees — to draw conclusions before you’ve actually done a thorough job of reporting. Ms. Cooper called SPJ headquarters and spoke with Quill Editor Joe Skeel. He suggested that she contact me for more information, and, according to Joe, Ms. Cooper told him she “wasn’t ready” to speak with me. “It was like she already knew what she was going to write, and that nothing I said was going to make a difference,” he later told me. “She already had her story and wanted the facts to support it.” I got the same feeling when I called (yes, I called her, not the other way around) Ms. Cooper. Her questions were pointed to such a degree that I felt she was looking for information that would support her preconceived notions.

Observation No. 3: The words “apparent” and “apparently” are common, cheap shots. Those words are handy little devices we journalists often trot out when we don’t know — or don’t want to acknowledge — someone’s motivations and intentions. We can get away with conveying so much — even making judgment calls of our own — if we simply write that things are “apparent.” Hey, as long as they’re apparent to us, that’s all that matters, right? Wrong.

Observation No. 4: It’s unfair to sock it to people and not give them the opportunity to defend themselves. Perhaps even worse is when people provide a defense that a journalist simply fails to include in his or her story. In Chicago, I never “pressed” SPJ’s National Ethics Committee to “give its blessing” to what was, indeed (and accurately reported as) a “most immodest proposal.” Why? There are two primary reasons: 1. It was a most immodest proposal!
2. The composition of SPJ’s national ethics committee wasn’t clear at the time this matter was addressed in Chicago.

Here’s the (boring but pertinent) inside baseball:

I presented the MarketWire proposal to the national board for consideration. I knew it was problematic on many levels, but I thought SPJ’s national directors would work as a large group to revamp the proposal to its liking. I was wrong. The board balked and cited several problems — but we ran out of time to do anything to address them.

To keep the proposal from languishing until the next board or executive committee meeting — which wouldn’t happen for a few months — directors wisely asked that I seek input from the National Ethics Committee.

I appeared before the committee only with intentions of seeking input. No blessing. No vote. No nothing. Just feedback that would help SPJ national leaders review the proposal with an even more critical eye and revamp it. I in no way tried to “press” the committee for its “blessing” because, by that point, I realized the proposal needed serious work. I’m not one to seek “blessings” for proposals I consider flawed …

I also wasn’t concerned with securing any “blessings” because, at that time, the composition of SPJ’s national ethics committee wasn’t very clear. If I must be completely honest — as I was with Ms. Cooper — the group was unwieldy. It was also laden with several people who participated in name only. So, on the day I attended that meeting in Chicago, I made it clear to the room that I sought no vote and no formal approval because it wasn’t clear to me that our “ethics committee” was adequately represented. The group’s chairman at the time even agreed with that approach before the meeting started.

There are plenty of people who will back me up on all of this, but Ms. Cooper apparently didn’t feel the need to contact them (despite the names and numbers I passed along to her). She was fine with parroting hurtful and inaccurate impressions (relayed to her by that noisy, handful of critics). She was fine with mischaracterizing my actions and motivations — without acknowledging in print my statements to the contrary. This is hardly accurate and fair reporting.

Observation No. 5: Let’s all be thankful for fact-checkers. When I heard that Ms. Cooper was working on an item about my role in the MarketWire deal, I decided to call her. We talked, and she told me she had much more reporting to do and would call me back before publication. The next call I received was weeks later from a fact-checker. As he read passages of the item, I corrected him. He rewrote and read some more. I corrected some more. He rewrote — and finally conceded that he had even more rewriting to do. He was hurried because he made it clear that he was under a tight deadline. I decided to call CJR Editor Michael Hoyt, and, lo and behold, Ms. Cooper called me back the next morning. I tried again to work with her — but the end result is still lousy. But hey, I suspect it’s better than the version that would have run had that fact-checker not bothered to call.

While I’m on this little rant, here’s what I explained to Mr. Hoyt is even more annoying about this entire matter:

“… CJR rarely writes about the Society of Professional Journalists. It doesn’t note our tremendously good work. It doesn’t acknowledge our amazing national network of volunteers who make plenty of personal sacrifices to improve and protect journalism. Instead, CJR delivers this drivel about a ‘committee’ meeting that happened LAST AUGUST and a deal that was approved in DECEMBER.

Federal shield protects public’s right to know

I wrote this column to draw attention to the reintroduction of a federal shield law to Congress. If you would like to use this copy, feel free. All I ask is that you alert SPJ Communications Director Beth King at

Regardless of whether you think journalists use too many anonymous sources, it’s hard to argue that they don’t need to promise confidentiality sometimes.

Many of the biggest investigative stories of our age have been based in part on information shared with a reporter by someone who wanted to keep his or her identity a secret. Anonymous sources handed over the Pentagon Papers and unmasked the culprits behind Watergate and Enron. They have outed some of the nation’s worst corporate polluters. They have helped inform Americans’ debates about the Iraq War, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and global warming.

Yes, sources almost always have an agenda when they speak up, but sometimes they have information of vital interest to the general public and much to lose if they’re caught passing it along. If journalists can’t protect their sources’ identities, you will be much less informed about the world.

Currently, 49 states (Wyoming is the only unenlightened one) have shield laws or operate under court rulings that grant journalists and their sources a “privilege” much like those afforded to lawyers and their clients, and therapists and their patients. This protection applies only to local and state cases, not federal ones.

Lately, federal prosecutors have dragged too many journalists into court, flaunting subpoenas for notes, work product and recollections of private conversations. The feds’ arrogant insistence that journalists should be compelled to act as arms of law enforcement undermines free speech, a free press and an informed citizenry.

Journalists need a federal shield law. Thankfully, one is scheduled for reintroduction Wednesday in Congress. The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 has bipartisan support in the House and Senate. The bill’s sponsors include Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.), and Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.). All four have fought for a federal shield law for a couple of years, arguing that transparency is good for democracy even if it exposes politicians to more scrutiny.

Among the bill’s provisions:

  • The federal government could not compel a person covered by the shield to provide testimony or produce documents without first showing the need to do so by a “preponderance of evidence.”
  • Journalists can be compelled to reveal the identity of confidential sources when the court finds it necessary to prevent “imminent and actual harm to national security” or “imminent death or significant bodily harm.” Journalists also may be compelled to identify a person who has disclosed trade secrets, health information or nonpublic personal information of any consumer in violation of current law.
  • People covered by the shield would be those “engaged in journalism.” Journalism is defined as “the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing of news and information for dissemination to the public.” The bill does not explicitly protect bloggers, but to the extent a court determines they are engaged in the practice of journalism, they are likely to be shielded.

Even with the protection of a federal shield law, journalists should use anonymous sources sparingly and take great care to explain to the public why a source’s identity needs to remain secret. More Capitol Hill reporters should insist their conversations are on the record. Newsrooms should tighten rules regarding the use of anonymous sources, which undermine the credibility of the news and leave journalism with black eyes at the hands of more reporters than we have the space to name here.

A federal shield law won’t end journalists’ abuse of anonymous sources, and it won’t end prosecutorial witch hunts. It will, however, help the public have access to important information, and that, in the end, is what really matters.


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