Archive for October, 2007

Shield Law Slam Dunk

What a day. What an amazing day for journalism and democracy.

In a historic, landslide victory, the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives on a 398 to 21 vote Tuesday, enjoying clear bipartisan support.

It was a long day of political maneuvering and some drama brought on by a move to see the bill sent back to committee. SPJ Communications staff and our attorneys from Baker Hostetler monitored the debate live  from the floor and via C-Span all day. To give members a sense of how things unfolded, here is Quill Editor Joe Skeel’s post-mortem take on how the confusing committee vote came down:

“The bill was indeed sent back to the House committee with instructions. That part we had right. However, the committee approved the amendments on the spot and sent the bill back to the house floor for a full vote. This is where the confusion set in. I thought that once it was sent back to committee, it would need to be heard during an official committee meeting. I was under the impression the final vote was for the second amendment. In actuality, it was for the bill’s passing.”

Happily, it passed. We issued a statement here that made the national Associated Press story here.

It was a proud day for a great many people, including quite a few SPJ volunteers, who have worked tirelessly on this for years.

It was also quite gratifying to see the bill sponsors, Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.), stand in the well and champion this legislation.  Pence, a former television broadcaster, was positively inspirational from the floor:

“Protections provided by the Free Flow of Information Act I submit are necessary so that members of the media can bring forward information to the public without fear of retribution or prosecution, and more importantly, so that sources will continue to come forward. Compelling reporters to testify, and in particular, compelling them to reveal the identity of confidential sources, is a detriment to the public interest. Without the promise of confidentiality, many important conduits of information about our government will be shut down. The dissemination of information by the media to the public on matters ranging from the operation of our government to events in our local communities is invaluable to the operation of democracy. Without the free flow of information from sources to reporters, the public will be ill-prepared to make informed choices.”

Now, we must turn our attention to the Senate bill, S. 2035, which passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 4. The day also brought a strong suggestion from the White House the bill would be vetoed if it is passed. Let us hope that the bill passes the Senate with the same kind of overwhelming numbers it passed through the House and that a veto is an obvious political defeat waiting to happen.

Tatum’s random thoughts on her way out the door

If you missed SPJ’s 2007 national conference, you missed what very well could be the best wingding this great organization has staged in years. As USA Today Editor Ken Paulson put it Saturday night, “The star power was here in full force.”

It was a glorious end to a wonderful year packed — absolutely packed — with accomplishment. Very soon, you’ll find my annual report on Please take a look at it because I think you, too, will be mightily impressed with the ground covered since August 2006. I provided an overview of all that territory for chapter delegates. Afterwards, Steve FitzGerald, president of SPJ’s Cleveland pro chatper, asked, “Are you sure this is over the last 12 months and not the last 12 years?”

Yup, pretty sure — and pretty amazed, too.

This is my last entry in Freedom of the Prez. President Clint Brewer, who was inducted Saturday night, will take over from here. I have little doubt that he’ll have plenty to share, discuss and debate with you during the 2007-08 season. We’re counting on you to remain engaged because SPJ’s leadership — and everyone tuning into this forum — will benefit from your insight and input.

If ever I can be of service to you, please contact me at

These are random thoughts, observations and thanks I leave you with:

The greatest regret of my presidency. On Saturday night, I completely blew it. I was working from a script that had been prepared by SPJ’s staff to keep things on track for the Society’s president’s installation banquet. At the last minute, I realized I had left said script — heavily marked with my own notes — in my room. There was no time to retrieve it, so I decided to wing it from another copy. DUMB move. As a result, I completely blanked and utterly failed to say a word about SPJ’s absolutely wonderful national staff. Allow me to fill you in here:

  • Forget the real estate, the cash reserves (which have grown from zilch to almost $400,000 in five years, by the way) and the building in Indianapolis. Executive Director Terry Harper is one of this Society’s chief assets. It’s also wonderful that he just happens to be a class act. Terry has done a great job of building a strong and very hardworking staff. While he hopes to retain those wonderful people, he’s also a big believer in helping folks move on to bigger, bolder and better opportunities. If only more people could benefit from that smart approach to management … Terry was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in June — something he shared with conventiongoers with the authority, good humor and steely resolve many of us in SPJ’s national leadership profoundly appreciate about him (What do you say when a guy who has just had a brain tumor removed sends an e-mail update under the subject line, “Thumping My Melon?”). If anyone can take charge, craft a smart game plan and wage one helluva battle against cancer, it’s Terry. He and his family are in my thoughts and prayers — and I hope they’ll be in yours, too.
  • Julie Grimes, Chris Vachon, Joe Skeel, Heather Porter, Mary Morgan, Shondra Price, Andrew Farkas, Billy O’Keefe, Beth King, Linda Hall and Jake Koenig don’t get the credit they deserve — and sometimes the respect they deserve — from SPJ members. I daresay that it’s not until a member holds the office of president that he or she can fully understand and appreciate just what these people manage to pull off in a year. It’s not easy to work with journalists — a noisy crowd that can be entirely too focused on finding fault, failure, imperfection and problems in just about everything. I salute their professionalism and patience.

SPJ makes some journalists squirm. I had a good laugh during a newsroom visit in Washington, D.C., last week.

Then President-elect Clint Brewer and I headed to several news organizations specializing in congressional coverage to encourage journalists to support the Society and to use its experts when sourcing stories about matters affecting the press.

An investigative reporter at Roll Call told us he considered SPJ’s work — particularly in the realm of lobbying — “creepy.” I understood what he meant. He covers Congress and shouldn’t be caught dead asking elected officials for anything.

At the same time, I don’t consider it much of a secret that journalists believe strongly in the First Amendment generally — and in the rights of free speech and a free press specifically. It’s going to be one very sad day when journalists fail to argue publicly and aggressively for these rights because they’re more in love with the illusions of objectivity and aloofness. (Yes, illusions. Objectivity is a noble goal for which we should always strive. However, we all know we have opinions about what we report and biases we bring to every table. The best journalists are those who know how to keep theirs out of news coverage.)

Speaking of Roll Call. A sharp reporter there broke the story of disgraced congressman Larry Craig. Let’s just say that poor journalist has been subjected to bad potty jokes for months — and there’s no sign of them letting up anytime soon.

SPJ makes some politicians take notice. I wrote a column about ethical lapses that was based on some interesting thoughts that came from SPJ’s National Ethics Committee. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) found that column — and SPJ’s Ethics Code — and mentioned them during the Senate Judiciary’s markup last week of the federal shield law bill. THAT was rewarding.

Few things are more fun than watching lawyers go head-to-head over the need for a federal shield law. I must say that Randall Eliason, an American University law professor who opposes a shield, was a good sport. The former prosecutor compared his appearance at SPJ’s conference to picketing for gun control at an NRA convention. He said journalists aren’t — and shouldn’t be — above the law. They should testify when ordered to do so. He also essentially said that journalists have gotten all worked up over nothing. There haven’t been that many instances of subpoenas — and certainly not enough to merit a shield, he claimed.

Bad move.

Eve Burton, the hardcharging general counsel for Hearst Corp., pounced. I think she even licked her chops before launching into what was a blistering rebuttal. Burton explained that her company alone has expanded its legal team just because of the number of subpoenas that have been issued to Hearst Corp.-owned news organizations.

During the debate, which started at 10 a.m. EDT, Burton reported that the company had received 162 subpoenas in the last two years — 80 of them since January. After the debate, she raced out of the hotel to hit Capitol Hill to speak with some legislators. She returned to SPJ’s conference to appear at another program that started at 3:15 p.m. “Make that 164 subpoenas,” Burton announced to the room. “We received two more since this morning.” They were “out of Texas,” she said.

Tom Henderson rocks. I felt terrible that the Region 10 director couldn’t make it to this year’s conference — and I know he did, too. I gave Tom one of the President’s Awards announced Saturday. I have worked with him for years on SPJ Leads, and he has been consistently gracious, good-humored and faithful in his service. Tom is a model volunteer. Does that mean he’s perfect? Nope. Does that mean he’s never cranky or bossy? Uh-huh. Does it mean that people agree with — or even remotely like — everything he says and does? Of course not. But Tom undoubtedly loves SPJ. He loves what the organization stands for and actively works to champion its mission. He volunteers when he’s needed, and he steps back when he knows he can’t follow through (if only more members understood the importance of letting their yes be yes and their no be no). He is creative (not many people have figured out how marry their passion for comic books and journalism). And he’s a doer. When Tom moved to Idaho and found no SPJ chapter there, he helped establish one. Tom has also had a difficult year personally. He didn’t attend the 2007 national conference largely because he’s a single father of a son with autism. “But let’s talk when you get back,” Tom told me just before I took off for D.C. “I want to know more about how to be involved next year.”

SPJ has the power to do much — and more. I explain what I think along these lines in my final presidential column in Quill magazine. I particularly hope we’ll see renewed discussion about an old topic — one member/one vote — during the 2007-08 national conference.

I see brilliant leaders on the horizon. As immediate past national president, I’ll be responsible for shaping the slate of officers who run for executive leadership next year. I hope you’ll review SPJ’s bylaws and seriously consider a go at it. Call me early and often with questions if you’re even a tiny bit interested in stepping up to this very, very important plate.

Again, it has been a pleasure and privilege to serve you. SPJ has given me tremendous new opportunities to pursue. My profound thanks.

Shield Law progresses — and SPJ was there!

This morning, a proposed federal shield law that would help journalists protect confidential sources sailed out of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 15-2.

One of the dissenters: Sen. Jon Kyl, the Arizona Republican SPJ members also known as “Senator Secrecy.” The other? Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Some things to note:

  • Several people deserve credit for this important legislation. I have been referring to this Senate version of the shield bill as the Specter Schumer Lugar Dodd Leahy Bill. I commend each of these senators for their work to ensure the issue of a shield law remained a priority for discussion.And let’s not forget the people who voted to support the measure:

    Leahy, Kennedy, Biden, Kohl, Feinstein, Feingold, Schumer, Durbin, Cardin, Whitehouse, Specter, Hatch, Grassley, Graham, Cornyn

    For what it’s worth, two senators abstained: Brownback and Coburn.

  • Sen. Kyl tried to sink this bill by saddling it with 46 — yes, 46 — amendments. While Sen. Kyl said misdirection of his staff was to blame, I’m not so sure … Fortunately, such silliness didn’t reign supreme.
  • Look for more discussion about the definition of a journalist. Yes, this is where things will become sticky. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who has been a true champion of reform of the federal Freedom of Information Act (he’ll be speaking to SPJ members this afternoon …), said that he wants to ensure “journalists” to whom the shield would apply are more clearly defined. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, agreed. Right now, the bill’s language is very broadly worded — as we hope it will remain. However, it’s clear that politicians aren’t comfortable with my favored definition of journalist which boils down to this: “Anyone gathering information for the purposes of distributing it.”As you would expect, similar conversation is happening in the U.S. House of Representatives, where another version of a shield law is still being worked on. Sponsoring Reps. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Rick Boucher (D-VA) are crafting definitions that run along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing wildly here): “Someone who practices journalism regularly and derives his or her primary source of income from that practice.”


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