Archive for August, 2007


Will Owen Wilson get to heal in private?

The breathlessness of many of today’s stories recounting actor Owen Wilson’s reported suicide attempt has made me cringe. (Full disclosure for the Us-Weekly-magazine conspiracy theorists among you: No, not because I have a secret crush on him. No, not because I secretly hope to interview him one day. And no, not because I want to use Mr. Wilson to win the affections of actor Vince Vaughn.)

Today, I’m seeing anonymous sources dishing this, that and the other about a Hollywood star who clearly has serious personal problems needing serious medical attention. I’m seeing the time stamps of police reports dutifully and meticulously noted as if to underscore the media watchdog’s savvy and vigilance (“And hey! Look! Click here to see a PDF of the officer’s actual handwritten report for yourself!”). I’m seeing the more official “business angles” exploring the impact this sad event might have on films either in the works or the midst of promotion (such angles are often little more than clumsy, high-brow excuses to cover what is essentially a very personal matter).

If only more journalists pounced as quickly and diligently on matters of true public importance.

I completely get the public personality-or-official lecture delivered in Media Law 101. Heck, I even get the far more advanced versions gleaned over the course of my career. You cast yourself into the limelight or get yourself elected to public office, and you ask for the scrutiny. You ask for the criticism, the leering, the praise, the fawning, the constant flashbulbs, the boatloads of letters and e-mail and the stupid guy begging for an autograph while you’re in a public restroom. Once you enter that white-hot public spotlight, you can’t leave it whenever you choose.

But journalists. What’s their responsibility when an Owen Wilson has a breakdown and asks the media (and, by extension, the general public) to allow him to heal in private? He’s no Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan or Nicole Ritchie driving under the influence on public streets. He’s not even a Britney Spears, who has an incredible knack for taking her wackiness public.

Might this be a time when we let a prominent person who apparently struggles with depression have the solace and privacy he needs? I certainly hope so. And if, for some reason, a news organization feels absolutely compelled to report every detail of Wilson’s recovery, perhaps it could do so within the context of actual public service. Of all the news accounts I checked before sitting down to write today, not one mentions a word about how to identify, treat, recover from or otherwise deal with debilitating depression.

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The Bourne Ultimatum and Journalism

The hubby and I watched “The Bourne Ultimatum” last night, and it reminded me of discussions swirling in journalism/newsroom/SPJ circles.

We’re buffs who love to discuss over dinner a film’s every detail. For years, without fail, my husband always has gotten the conversation rolling with one simple question: “Why did they make that movie?”

I’m no spoiler, so I won’t recount too much here, but the final(?) installment of the series about a young black-ops CIA agent included themes journalists typically love to contemplate:

  • The reporter-source relationship. A reporter for The Guardian in London gets close, oh-so-close, to blowing the lid off a controversial CIA program. He’s courageous and diligent. And even in the midst of what is clear and present danger, he has the presence of mind to protect his source’s identity.
  • Blind loyalty. Whether it’s to a government, to any other institution (such as, oh, say, a newsroom, news organization, news company or journalism-advocacy organization) or even to an individual, blind loyalty is always dangerous. This movie is a potent reminder of the need to ask questions, to challenge authority and “group think,” to speak up and act when others don’t, to reject what is politically convenient/popular/savvy for what is right. And yet there’s a balance to be struck between such protest and respect for authority — a very important concept with which journalists often struggle. It is also possible to challenge with respect — another approach to debate often lost these days. The movie touches on these delicate, but crucial, balances.
  • Privacy. We don’t have nearly as much as we’d like to think.
  • Government secrecy. How far will our elected officials go? How much will they try to hide under the guise of “national security?”Real life already tells us pretty darned far and pretty darned much — but The Bourne Ultimatum is a thrilling (OK, even fun) reminder of that.

Don’t trust my recommendation that this film is worth dropping $50 for a ticket, tiny bag of popcorn and sippy-cup-sized soda. See the review from my all-time favorite film critic.

I’m also paging SPJ member and Region 10 Director Tom Henderson! He has a great list of movies every journalist should check out. Here’s to hoping he posts it here.

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Anchorwoman: More bomb than bombshell

Fox has pulled the plug on “Anchorwoman,” one of the dumbest reality shows concocted yet (and that’s really saying something).

This reaction arrived in my e-mail inbox from Michael Drudge of San Antonio: “Amazing. How refreshing to see there IS a limit to the depth of low taste in this country.”

Indeed.

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Go ahead! Plug your blog!

Certainly no news flash here: a blog can have serious reach.

I launched Freedom of the Prez in September 2006 with hopes that SPJ national presidents for years to come would log on occasionally to document important issues/events, generate discussion and generally connect with SPJ members and the public. Perhaps, over time, this blog’s archives will help inform everyone’s perspective about where SPJ is, how it got there and where it needs to head next.

It’s also my hope that Freedom of the Prez is just one more hub where SPJ members can make their own voices heard. As you’ll see on the left navigation rail of this page, there is a list headlined “Members Only.” If you’ve got a blog to share, by all means send me the URL. I’ll add it to that list pronto.

I was delighted this week to see mention of Freedom of the Prez on Rifftides, where SPJ member Doug Ramsey writes mostly about jazz for ArtsJournal.

Just a snippet of what Doug wrote:

“If you think an unimpeded flow of information is vital to the survival of democracy, rummaging around in the Freedom of the Prez archives will be enlightening–and sometimes infuriating. (Tatum) can be as tough on the news business and wayward journalists as she is on their enemies and detractors.”

Awww, shucks.

But what really made me smile was a subsequent post on Rifftides that was generated as a result of that mention of Freedom of the Prez. One Rifftides reader — Devra Hall of DevraDoWrite — wanted to explore the “Bush administration’s relationship to press freedom and journalistic responsibility, particularly in regard to the Joseph Wilson-Valerie Plame episode.” She mentioned a conversation Bill Moyers had with two Constitutional scholars and concluded with the following graph:

“Having watched the program, I realized how little I know about the Constitution, the intentions of those who wrote it, and the predictions they made. I was fascinated by the discussion, and heartened that it took the subject of impeachment out of the realm of Bush bashing, or even partisan politics, and placed it in a solidly historical, impersonal perspective.”

That comment gave Doug Ramsey another interesting in. He followed up:

“I wonder how many of us know as much about the Constitution as we think we do. I keep a copy on my desk and one in my laptop case, but I don’t look at them nearly often enough. I’m making a resolution to brush up. We all should. With civil liberties under attack (as they always are) and a crucal election on the horizon, we need the understanding. For the price of shipping and handling, you can get a free copy here.”

Might Doug’s post inspire someone to study up on the Constitution? If so, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Join the fun. Send me that URL today.

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Global attacks on journalism: Do you really care?

The news this week out of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) was especially depressing. Journalists worldwide are literally fighting for their lives.

I have written about how checked out American journalists can be where matters of global press freedom are concerned.

A few new connections might snap more of us out of our complacency. Speaking with journalists from foreign countries never ceases to amaze, disturb and inspire me. During a recent SPJ event, I chatted with an Iranian journalist who is wrapping up a fellowship in the United States. The journalist described the time spent here as “working in heaven.” I also learned more about how the journalist’s colleagues have learned to deal with government edicts concerning news they will and will not present to the public. “You learn what not to say,” the journalist told me. “You become very good at self-censorship.”

One very helpful way to learn more about global-press issues quickly is through “IFEX Communiqué,” a weekly e-newsletter. IFEX is a global network of 71 organizations working to defend and promote “the right to free expression.” The network is managed by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

SPJ’s International Journalism Committee is also well versed in global press-freedom issues. This committee is particularly focused on helping American journalists find opportunities to work abroad and better understand how a stronger command of international issues improves journalism right here at home.

Need a little nudge to get more involved? Here are just a few of the headlines from this week’s IFEX newsletter that prompted me to write:

  • Two Radio Journalists Killed in Wave of Violent Attacks in Somalia
  • Central Asia: Network Revs Up Press Freedom Campaigning; Kazakh Journalist Dies
  • Germany: Numerous Journalists Face Criminal Investigation
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: News Photographer Shot Dead
  • Kenya: President Urged to Reject Law Requiring Journalists to Reveal Sources

And from alerts IFEX has sent in the last week:

  • Senegal: Newsroom records threat to journalist made by minister
  • Mexico: Four journalists detained by military while trying to cover drug raid
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: Photojournalist shot dead near his home in Goma
  • Colombia: Staff of television news programme harassed for reporting on bridge construction
  • Turkey: Journalist convicted of “insulting” lawyer, faces possible imprisonment and compensation fees
  • Israel/Palestine: Cameraman badly injured by Israeli gunfire unable to leave Gaza Strip to get artificial legs in Egypt
  • Serbia: Editor of radio-television station in Bela Crkva receives death threats
  • Afghanistan: IFJ condemns abduction of Kabul reporter Kamran Mir Hazar, previously detained by state security agency
  • East Timor: Newspaper office attacked, media worker beaten
  • Pakistan: Released after 16 months’ military detention, journalist held another 30 days under police arrest
  • Peru: Two television reporters attacked in Pucallpa
  • Philippines: Electoral commission threatens legal action against media personalities; boxer files libel suit against journalists
  • Sierra Leone: Two presenters injured in armed attack on evangelical radio station
  • Colombia: Radio journalists in Arauca must read announcement on air or become military targets, FARC threatens
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Andy Schotz makes a great point

If you haven’t read National Ethics Committee Chairman Andy Schotz’ column in this month’s edition of Quill magazine, please do so.

In a nut shell, Andy challenges what is becoming a common practice: newsrooms are permitting anonymous posts on their Web sites.

He writes:

“The standards should be high. Anonymity may be granted, in a news story or for a letter to the editor, if there’s a compelling reason. We explain why.

“With online comments, we do the opposite. We let people hide behind a screen name and hurl insults, which we may or may not scrub from the Web site, depending on whether someone has noticed or complained.

“The result is a lower level of discourse. Amusement and rants replace reasoned debate. And, by setting up this process, we solicit and encourage anonymous nonsense and barbs. We’re responsible.”

And then there is this sobering thought from Philip Meyer, a professor at the University of North Carolina, who recently joined a debate about journalists and certification:

“I’m not sure we can count on the Miltonian self-righting principle for truth to emerge on its own. The lies move too fast now.”

Andy and Professor Meyer make great points — and I had to laugh about the timing of their wise remarks. See for yourself some of the anonymous trash-talking that as broken out about me on a previous threador two. I can take it on the chin — or I never would have agreed to serve as SPJ’s president.

But really. It’s amazing how chicken some people are. And when they’re supposed to be advocates of responsible journalism, their anonymous posts are downright spineless. As Andy stated, those operating from the shadows commonly throw barbs and hurl insults while also dragging down the level of discourse. Some of the rants might be funny (I cracked up after one poster used the name recallchristinetatum@corporatetool.com), but they don’t add anything of true value to a debate. When facts are screwed up — as is too often the case — there is no accountability.

We don’t stand for that kind of junk on our pages or our newscasts. Why are we lowering this bar for the online world? We should embrace instant communication. But instant and anonymous aren’t the same thing.

With all of this said, there have been times when people have posted anonymously on this blog and, in the process, have added valuable insight. I still sometimes think about the women who chimed in to discuss the challenges of balancing motherhood and a career in journalism. I think about the young woman, M, who genuinely feared any questions and remarks she posted could get her in trouble at work.

Unfortunately, though, the Ms of the world are increasingly rare.

Andy’s column has made me think about SPJ, of course. We should set a high standard we encourage all news organizations to follow. Perhaps it’s time for us to consider being more pointed in our ethics code about discouraging anonymous posts online. Perhaps SPJ should open its message boards only to those who submit their names — or log in through some other mechanism so that we know they’re actual members. Just a thought.

What are yours? And if you post anonymously, you’re a goof.

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Balancing good for journalists and good for SPJ

This afternoon, I decided that SPJ shouldn’t add its name to an amicus brief that supports clarifying contract law that affects freelancers and publishers.

Legal Defense Fund Committee Chairman Dave Aeikens and I still very much believe the brief has tremendous merit. Though SPJ’s national board is divided on the matter, Dave and I aren’t alone.

Yet neither of us wants to champion a cause that also damages SPJ — and it’s clear this one is.

As I have previously stated, I was fully prepared for some people to disagree with my stance. I knew they’d insult my intelligence and hurl silly and unfounded insults. That, unfortunately, is how many people choose to handle disagreements (even better are those who throw barbs without having the guts to attach their names to them). So be it.

But it’s hard to see the painstaking work that has been done over many months — even years — trampled on and readily dismissed because people disagree about one issue. It’s hard to see what should be focused and productive discussions dissolve into shouting matches that aren’t even on point. It’s hard to see good, hard-working people who have done so much to defend freelancers called stupid names and accused of the utterly ridiculous.

This particular cause, while worthy, isn’t worth all of that.

A highly respected freelancer with whom I have consulted (but gracious, why post the name here and sick the ill-informed and/or angry flash mob on him/her, too?) while evaluating this matter wrote today:

“Of course I can see why those freelancers are pissed. It’s like when your mom used to say, ‘I’m grounding you for your own good. You’ll thank me later.’ Mom was right, but it was hard to believe that at the time.

“SPJ didn’t involve itself in this case to benefit publishers or injure journalists. SPJ raised its voice because it is the job of journalists to create clarity in the face of constangly mutating, endlessly confusing language and smokescreens. The lower court merely underscored the bedrock principle of good writing: Words have meanings. Contracts, like well-written stories, must say what they mean and mean what they say. To disagree would be to dishonor our profession.”

My sentiments exactly. Thanks for capturing them so beautifully, my freelancing friend.

Despite all of this rancor, one big problem remains: contracts concerning payment for freelance work should be much clearer. Far too many freelancers are not in a position to negotiate their own terms, and they are, frankly, continuing to sign bad contracts because they have no other choice if they want to pay the bills.

I suspect the 2nd Circuit will, ultimately, help give greater clarity to the law. As these matters are hashed out, SPJ will continue to work to help freelancers understand what they need to do to protect their income.

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A tough decision aimed at helping all freelancers

In late June, SPJ’s law firm, Baker & Hostetler, recommended that the Society’s Legal Defense Fund Committee lend SPJ’s name to an amicus brief in the case of Faulkner v. National Geographic Society.

After very, very careful consideration, and in accordance with longstanding SPJ policy and procedure, LDF Committee Chairman David Aeikens and I agreed that SPJ would add its name to the brief, which supports a ruling in favor of National Geographic and not Mr. Faulkner, a freelance journalist.

This was a tough decision, and it was not at all made lightly. I knew it might anger some journalists – even to the point of dropping their membership in SPJ. I knew there would be questions about why SPJ would take on this particular issue when it typically (though not always) steers clear of business practices. And yes, I knew some people would express their disappointment and disagreement in very hurtful, personal ways – and with screeds that are grossly inaccurate.

I was right on all those counts, but I stand by the decision I helped make because it stands to help clarify law so that freelancers can negotiate smarter contracts that help ensure they’re paid fairly for their work. It might sound odd – even ludicrous to some – but a ruling in favor of a publisher in this case actually could help all freelance journalists well into the future.

A ruling in favor of National Geographic would be forward-looking. It essentially would draw a bright line that says, “OK, Everybody, from now on, here’s how to wheel and deal in a manner that helps spare all of you costly litigation.”

This case stands to clarify what, precisely, freelance journalists must do to overcome a legal presumption publishers often use to deny them payment. I am specifically referring to the presumption set by 201(c) of the Copyright Act – a presumption publishers have used, and abused, to skirt payment to freelancers for privileged reproductions of their work.

A decision in favor of National Geographic would serve to put publishers on notice: they can’t automatically argue – as far too many of them have – that they don’t have to pay freelancers for those privileged reproductions.

A ruling in favor of National Geographic also, obviously, would put freelancers on notice: if they want to be paid for privileged reproductions of their work, they must have a contract with the publisher that expressly and clearly states that position in writing. Put another way, if you’ve got a clear contract, you’ll get your money.

This case does not affect a freelance journalist’s ability to negotiate the terms of a contract, and it actually stands to strengthen a freelancer’s ability to receive payment for the reproduction of work published in the same context as the original.

While nothing about the law is absolute, it can be more certain. And it is most certainly possible to negotiate a clearly worded contract that leaves little to chance and yields payment for years to come. People successfully do this all the time. And though we can’t foresee all of the ways in which media will change in the next two years, much less the next 10, the court has said those changes likely will not override a clearly worded contract.

Which brings me to the ambiguously worded contract (that’s the trial court’s finding currently on appeal in the federal second circuit) Mr. Faulkner negotiated with National Geographic Society. The court so far has ruled that the specific language in that contract is not enough to win him additional compensation from National Geographic, which has distributed a privileged reproduction of his work (in this case, a CD-ROM collection of magazines exactly as they appeared in hardcopy print). The court so far has ruled that whether in 1987, 2007 or 2017, the contract’s language is not constructed in a way that favors Mr. Faulkner.

At first blush, this case appears to be a David-versus-Goliath match-up. A little guy striking back at the big guy on behalf of little guys everywhere. That isn’t the case. A ruling in Mr. Faulkner’s favor would help him and what is likely a very, very, very small group of freelance journalists who are parties to contracts containing the same ambiguous language. I can’t underscore enough the phrase “very, very, very small group.”

The people who have most concerned me are those freelancers who are holding contracts that are not like Mr. Faulkner’s but are also unclear. Indeed, a ruling in favor of National Geographic would make it even more difficult for those people to prevail should they pursue legal action. However, it’s also important to note that a ruling in favor of Mr. Faulkner wouldn’t necessarily help them at all. Either way they slice it, those freelancers would, unfortunately, need to wage their own lengthy and costly legal battles focused on language very specific to their circumstances.

If, by some slim chance, they have the money to wage a legal battle, the cycle may only repeat itself.

A ruling in favor of Mr. Faulkner essentially would continue to allow everyone to traffic in ambiguity – and that is almost always likely to benefit the publisher. At the same time, I can understand why it is tempting for freelancers to want to leave open the door to ambiguity. Who, after all, wants to concede that they signed a contract that doesn’t benefit them?

Instead of looking backward to determine how they might win additional payment from shaky contracts forged in the past such as Mr. Faulkner’s, it would be much smarter — much more beneficial for all journalists — to ask: “What can we do to help freelancers get paid fairly far into the future? How can we band together to identify and correct unclear and problematic contracts that harm our livelihood?”

I realize that no matter what I write, there are very reasonable and respectable journalists who will disagree with me. Disagreement over this matter is precisely why this case is sitting before a judge. But I hope we can all come together to help remedy what is a sorry state of affairs that affects far too many hardworking journalists.

A ruling in favor of National Geographic Society is a relatively rare opportunity to help advance that very important and far more progressive discussion. It would add clarity to the law and protect journalists by improving their chances of receiving fair compensation.

That is a cause worthy of this Society’s support.

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The NFL’s response to SPJ

When we first learned of a ridiculous new rule affecting journalists who want to cover NFL games from the sidelines, we wasted no time dashing off a letter to league officials.

In a nutshell, the league wants photojournalists to wear red vests bearing the logos of NFL sponsors Reebok and Canon.

The response we received this week essentially states that the logos are so small they shouldn’t bother journalists. Heck, league officials say, you won’t even be able to see them on television! These vests aren’t meant to advertise anything, the NFL says. The Canon logo is there because Canon is paying for the vests, and Reebok’s logo is there because it’s the league’s official clothier.

What-in-the-world-ever.

Why are NFL officials so convinced this is a workable situation? They ran it by the Associated Press’ director of photography and can cite plenty of sporting events where journalists typically clad themselves in corporate logos.

Please, by all means, read the NFL’s letter to SPJ for yourself.

Don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to throw in the towel on this one. I still don’t understand why the league — if it genuinely wants to manage security and has no sales and marketing wrapped up in any of this — couldn’t just charge news organizations for the manufacture of vests sans corporate logos …

At the risk of sounding like a preachy school marm, I’m royally ticked that so many journalists have walked around sporting events clad in corporate logos. And if an AP photog editor sees nothing wrong with this? Really, what were any of you thinking?

Some good news: the National Press Photographers Association, which got the same letter from the NFL, also considers the League’s argument ridiculous — and the NPPA is not backing off on this matter.

SPJ isn’t, either.

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FOI Reform: In sight thanks in part to SPJ

This note arrived in the e-mail inbox Friday night from lawyer Laurie Babinski, who works for Baker & Hostetler, SPJ’s law firm in Washington, D.C.:

All,

The Senate passed the FOIA reform bill, S. 849 (the OPEN Government Act), on unanimous consent tonight just before it went into its August recess. While a few minor concessions were made in the process, the bill is still substantially the same as when it was reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Once Congress returns, the House (H.R. 1309) and Senate versions of the bill will likely go into Conference to resolve the minor differences between the two bills.

The press release from the Sunshine in Government Initiative — which includes a quote from Christie — is below.

Best, Laurie

Laurie A. Babinski
Baker & Hostetler LLP
1050 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 1100
Washington, D.C. 20036

THE SUNSHINE IN GOVERNMENT INITIATIVE

Friday, August 3, 2007

Contact: Rick Blum
rblum@sunshineingovernment.org
703-807-2100

SGI Applauds Senate Passage of FOIA Reform

The ten media organizations comprising the Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI) applaud Senate passage of bipartisan, common sense reforms to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“The Senate has voted to give the public a better system to ensure our government is open and accountable,” said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative. “This is a strong statement that openness is vital to American democracy. This bill creates an independent ombudsman to resolve citizen disputes and help agencies strengthen FOIA. It will help the public hold agencies accountable for avoiding openness.”

SGI would like to express appreciation to Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX), their staffs and Senate leaders for working so hard and diligently to ensure this popular bill creates meaningful fixes to the broken FOIA system.

The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act, or OPEN Government Act (S. 849), makes simple, common sense reforms to the way federal agencies process requests for documents under FOIA. Among its improvements, the legislation:

  • Creates a tracking system and hotline for requesters
  • Restores meaningful deadlines for agency action and imposes real consequences on federal agencies for missing statutory deadlines
  • Creates an ombudsman to help requesters use FOIA and avoid and resolve disputes
  • Makes it easier for the public to recover legal fees when requesters must sue for records
  • The House already approved nearly identical legislation (H.R. 1309) by an overwhelming vote of 308-117.

    The Sunshine in Government Initiative is a coalition of ten media groups promoting open and accountable government. For a copy of the letter and more information, visit www.sunshineingovernment.org.

  • Members of the SGI coalition include: American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, National Association of Broadcasters, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of Professional Journalists.

Comments from SGI Members

“As American citizens, we are the owners of our government. But as the federal government has grown, much of what it produces has been locked away. By passing the OPEN Government Act, the Senate has provided us all with a shiny new set of keys to take possession of that which is rightfully ours.”

– Richard Karpel Executive Director, Association of Alternative Newspapers

“With the passage of the OPEN Government Act, the public has new tools to ensure its government is transparent and accountable, And, while members of the media maybe the highest profile users of FOIA, it is every day citizens and businesses who submit the most requests for information from our government. FOIA is simply an indispensable way for citizens, journalists and businesses to access information about their government, including government waste, abuse and wrongdoing. We are grateful to Senators Leahy and Cornyn for their steadfast leadership in the enactment of these meaningful and constructive reforms.”

– John Sturm President and CEO, Newspaper Association of America

“SPJ commends the U.S. Senate for approving reform of what is perhaps Americans’ strongest tool to supervise the inner workings of government.”

– Christine Tatum National President, Society of Professional Journalists Assistant Features Editor/Online Features Editor, The Denver Post

“This is a huge advancement for open government, and long overdue. But this isn’t just a victory for journalists; it’s a victory for every single member of the American public. This legislation will eliminate some of the lengthy delays and persistent backlogs in the FOIA process that create obstacles and limit the public’s ability to make informed choices in their communities.”

– Barbara Cochran President, Radio-Television News Directors Association

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