Archive for the ‘Awards’ Category


Stolen Valor Act vs. free speech: A First Amendment victory

A significant victory for the First Amendment drew scant attention last week, lost amid the barrage of well-deserved coverage given to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Health Care Act.

On the same day, the court, in the case U.S. v. Alvarez, struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal crime for someone to falsely claim to be a recipient of military honors, especially the Congressional Medal of Honor.

This was a case in which SPJ and a number of media organizations filed a friend of the court brief urging the justices to do exactly what they did in the name of protecting free speech.

This may seem like an odd place for us to be, defending the rights of someone accused of being a liar, but as so often happens in First Amendment cases, the people on the cutting edge of the law are not exactly role models.

Such is the case with Xavier Alvarez, a California man prosecuted after he described himself at a public meeting as a retired Marine who had won the Medal of Honor.

“Lying was his habit,” observed Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion. Kennedy noted that Alvarez also falsely had claimed to be a former Detroit Red Wing hockey player and that he had lied about marrying a starlet from Mexico.

But when he claimed to be a Medal of Honor recipient, that’s when Alvarez ran afoul of the law, and that’s where the slippery slope of a free-speech problem began.

There are forms of lying that are not protected by the First Amendment, the court noted. (Read the full opinion and related documents and friend of the court briefs, collected by SCOTUSblog.)

Perjury on a witness stand, for example, is a crime because otherwise it would threaten the integrity of any court proceeding.

And making false statements in a defamation case is not protected under the First Amendment.

But here there was no claim that Alvarez defamed anyone or spoke a falsehood under oath. He was prosecuted simply because he falsely claimed to have a medal.

That kind of content-based definition of speech as a crime was troubling to those of us who saw it as a dangerous precedent. What if the next set of laws criminalized falsehoods about some other topic?

Fortunately, a 6-3 majority of justices also saw the problem at the heart of this law.

“Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper would endorse governmental authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable,” Kennedy wrote.

“That governmental power has no clear limiting principal,” Kennedy said, conjuring up the image of “The Ministry of Truth,” from George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Justice Stephen Breyer also saw another problem in his concurring opinion when he wrote, “the threat of criminal prosecution for making a false statement can  inhibit the speaker from making true statements thereby “chilling” a kind of speech that lies at the First Amendment’s heart.”

Kennedy also pointed out there are remedies to counter such lying that don’t require criminalizing speech.

That’s where SPJ, journalists and other media advocates come in. There are quite a few reporters out there who have exposed the lies of individuals who have fabricated military records and honors.

There are also databases out there that seek to list the true Medal of Honor winners such as this one compiled by The Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Whenever someone describes himself or herself in public as a decorated war hero, it should be a our habit to check out the claim.

That way we’re exercising our First Amendment rights to seek and report the truth while protecting the valor of those who rightfully earned that honor.

SPJ Notes….And speaking of true military heroes, be sure to tune in when you have a moment, to the two most recent podcasts of Studio SPJ. Host Holly Fisher has been interviewing winners of our Sigma Delta Chi Awards, both of whom profiled soldiers.

Here’s the link to a segment she did with Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot, who wrote about an Army medical unit in Afghanistan.

And here is a link to Holly’s interview with Sara Stuteville, who won for a story she did for Pacific Northwest magazine on a marine’s return to Iraq.

On a day when we celebrate our independence, I think it’s important to remember the sacrifices of those who fought to protect those freedoms. Have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

 

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Nobody asked me, but… On Alec Baldwin, Carl Kasell and other important SPJ and journalism topics

1) Alec Baldwin needs to take a chill pill, judging by his altercation with a New York Daily News photographer on a public sidewalk outside New York City Hall last week.

In the chatter that followed the incident, Baldwin tried to describe the photographer as a papparazzi, those folks who follow celebrities around snapping pictures of their every move.

But in fact, the photographer in question is a veteran photojournalist who was on assignment that day outside City Hall where Baldwin was picking up a marriage certificate.

As for Baldwin, I think my friend and colleague Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, did a great job of airing out the issues in this open letter to the actor.

2) Eddye Gallagher deserves a tip of the fedora this week. Recently, she agreed to fill a vacancy on our national board and on June 16 the SPJ board appointed her as interim Region 8 Director after Scott Cooper resigned.

I first got to know Eddye when she attended the Scripps Leadership Institute a few years ago. If you talk with folks in our Fort Worth chapter, they describe her as a human dynamo who is responsible for many good things the chapter has accomplished in recent year.

Me, I’m just glad to have Region 8 represented again and to welcome Eddye onto the board.

3) Politics should not trump programming in public television. 

I understand that people should have the ability to have their say about what goes out on the air. That’s why it’s called “public” broadcasting.

But still, it was disturbing to read this report recently about a controversy involving Alabama Public Television.

It’s hard to say with precision what happened, because the station’s former director is not saying much. But this is certainly a situation that deserves a close watch going forward.

4) Who says there are no heroes anymore? I met three of mine in one evening recently while attending our Washington, D.C. Pro Chapter’s Hall of Fame banquet.

-Sander Vanoucur is a journalist I’ve admired all my life, from when he served as one of the panelists in the first Kennedy-Nixon debates through the Watergate era, when he wound up on President Nixon’s enemies list. He’s a bit frail now, but sharp as ever when you talk to him.

-Carl Kasell is a National Public Radio rock star for his role in the popular news  quiz program “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.” But I came to admire him for all those years in which he delivered my first of news each day NPR’s top-of-hour newscasts.

-Brian Lamb revolutionized public access broadcasting when he created CSPAN. But for me, I’ve long admired his deadpan and thorough interviewing style. His program, “Booknotes,” served as a template for much of the programming I’ve done with SPJ through the years.

5) Another tip of the fedora to Michael Koretzky, our Region 3 Director, for helping kickstart our SPJ webinar series earlier this month.

Michael put together a great program called “Weird Careers in the Media” which was an updated version of a talk he gave at one of our national conventions a few years ago.

Now as then, the “virtual” room was packed with more than 100 people tuning in from around the country to listen and watch the webcast.

I fielded several emails from attendees who said they found Michael’s talk incredibly useful to their own job hunting strategies.

So stay tuned, we’ll be producing more webinars in the months ahead.

6) Holly Fisher is an excellent interviewer, doing a series of interviews with journalist who won this year’s SDX Awards. Here’s a link to a podcast, a recent conversation with Corinne Reilly about an award-winning story she wrote for the Virginian-Pilot.

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Toughing it out: Great journalism in hard times

Note: A version of this post is in the May/June issue of Quill magazine as John Ensslin’s “From the President” column.

We live in difficult times. Not a month goes by without fresh news of colleagues who have either lost their jobs or are left to deal with the harsh reality of a smaller newsroom operating on diminished resources.

It’s distressing to read about copy editors being laid off. As someone who has been saved from many an embarrassing gaffe, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a robust copy desk.

Shedding copy editors is like burning the furniture to stay warm. It’s a desperate option, and in the end, the news outlet gets burnt.

But hard times require hard people, and journalists — especially SPJ members — are a tough, creative and resourceful bunch.

For vivid proof, look no further than the May/June Quill, where we honor the work of this year’s Sigma Delta Chi Award winners from newsrooms large and small.

There are some amazing stories here. Take, for example, Corrine Reilly’s riveting description of an operating room in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan for The Virginian-Pilot.

Or the tough, ground-breaking stories that Sara Ganim and her colleagues at the Patriot-News did on the sex assault allegations against former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky — which also won a Pulitzer this year.

Or Matt Lakin’s exposé of an epidemic of pain-killer addiction in East Tennessee for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

All of this work was done against the backdrop of news organizations that are stretched to meet their bottom line. But the work still gets done because reporters, editors, photographers and news directors believed in these stories. They did what had to be done.

We salute them, and I look forward to meeting these fellow journalists when we hold our annual SDX Awards banquet at the National Press Club on Friday, July 20.

If you are near the D.C. area, consider joining us. I know from attending last year’s banquet that it is an inspirational evening and well worth your time and the price of admission. See here for ticket information.

If you can’t be there, stay tuned for a series of “Studio SPJ” programs that will feature interviews with some of the winners on how they got their story. More on these and past programs is here.

Exceptional work like this gives me optimism for the future of journalism. I also found grounds for optimism recently while on a sentimental journey into journalism’s past.

In May, I visited Silverton, an old frontier mining town in southwest Colorado and home to the Silverton Standard & The Miner.

The purpose of my trip was to help dedicate a plaque commemorating the site of the newspaper’s office as one of SPJ’s Historic Sites in Journalism.

The Standard & The Miner became the 94th entry on our list and the second in Colorado, joining the Denver Press Club, which was added in 2008.

This weekly newspaper has been a fixture in Silverton since 1875, when it began telling the stories of this town through good times and bad.

You want to talk about tough times? How about this: The original publisher had to haul the printing press and then rolls of newsprint over a 10,910-foot mountain pass.

The paper has endured through boom and bust cycles as well as an outbreak of Spanish influenza that wiped out 10 percent of the town’s population.

What’s particularly remarkable about the paper’s recent history is what happened in 2009 when the previous owner was set to close the paper. The San Juan Historical Society stepped forward, bought the paper and continues to run it on a non-profit basis.

Silverton Mayor Chris Tookey summed up the town’s feelings at a May 5 dedication ceremony:

“We’re so excited that everybody got together and kept our newspaper alive,” she told the crowd that had gathered for the event.

I told the crowd that the plaque was not just to commemorate a site where journalism has been practiced. Rather, the honor was for the unbreakable bond that exists between this paper and its community.

The challenges we face today in serving our communities are no less daunting than they were for the owners of the Silverton paper when they had to haul newsprint over a steep mountain pass in the dead of a Colorado winter.

But as they showed then, and as our SDX Award winners show now, it can be done, and it will be done.

We are a tough, resourceful bunch. We will find our way.

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My excellent SPJ weekend in Colorado

I traveled 2,000 miles last weekend to spend a few hours in Silverton, Colorado. It was well worth the trip.

A breeze that blew across the old mining town carried four sounds: A dog barking. The spring runoff in the creek behind me. A distant train whistle. A brass band.

The music came from Silverton Brass Band, which was playing John Phillip Sousa’s Washington Post March. This seemed fitting since they were there to celebrate SPJ honoring The Silverton Standard & The Miner as one of our Historic Sites in Journalism.

Here’s a clip that sets the scene:

Next, here’s a video of Mark Esper, the paper’s editor and publisher, in Victorian period garb, who tells a bit of the paper’s history and why being added to the SPJ list was such an honor.

What happened to the paper in recent years is one of the great “feel good” stories about journalism in recent years. In this clip, Fritz Kinke, a printer and board member with the San Juan Historical Society, explains the Society’s decision to buy the paper and run it as a non-profit.

And finally, here’s is a clip of the Silverton Brass Band, playing their rendition of “Kansas City.”

What was really heart-warming about this story is that we were honoring not just a historic newspaper office but the unbreakable bond that has developed between that paper and the community it has served since 1875.

 

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SPJ committees at work: The year ahead

This post is an expanded version of my forthcoming first column for Quill (for the Nov/Dec issue). Think of this as a roadmap for the year ahead and a lineup of who is doing what.

It’s a bit long, but it will give you a good idea of the scope and breadth of the work SPJ has taken on this year.

The unsung heroes of our Society are the volunteers who log countless hours working on various national committees.

As your new president, I’ve been blessed to inherit a very strong set of committees. I’ve added some people and created some new committees, but for the most part there’s a fair number of folks who agreed to continue on this year.

In my view, committees are working laboratories where SPJ policies are drafted and vetted. I’ve tasked these folks with testing out several new initiatives. Here are brief descriptions of some of the assignments they are working on.

- The Programming Committee, chaired by Jeremy Steele, is a new panel aimed at helping professional and student chapters increase the level of SPJ activities. One project they are working on is to create a “speakers’ bureau” of various experts within SPJ who would be willing to travel at minimal cost to talk to chapters across the country.

As part of the programming committee, Holly Fisher will continue to produce chapter-hosted programs for Studio SPJ.

- The expanded Membership Committee, chaired by Holly Edgell, will be forming a team of volunteers to reach out to lapsed members to encourage them to re-up. The group is also working on coordinating a month-long national membership drive in March 2012. They are also studying the feasibility of creating an institutional membership for news organizations.

-This year Membership also has a new subcommittee chaired by Tara Puckey. This group will focus their efforts on building collegiate membership.

- The Ethics Committee, chaired by Kevin Smith, plans to begin the long and deliberate process of reviewing our Code of Ethics for possible revisions in the light of the challenges posed by a digital age. The committee also hopes to author some position papers on topics such as political coverage, checkbook journalism, plagiarism, etc.

-The Diversity Committee, chaired by Curtis Lawrence, is at work on reviving the Rainbow Source Book, working to strengthen ties with other journalism organizations and partnering with chapters and other journalism groups to monitor content and hiring in media.

- The Freedom of Information Committee, chaired by Linda Petersen, will be working on an encore production of the highly popular “Access Across America Tour” that Secretary-Treasurer Dave Cuillier created two years ago. This year, we’re hoping to have more than one trainer making regional tours to newsrooms and chapters across the nation.

The FOI Committee also is doing an update on prison media access, and for Sunshine Week they will be surveying Washington, D.C.-area reporters on their relationship with federal government PIOs to gain insight into source relationships and the role that public relations professionals play in the free flow of information between government and the media.

- The Government Relations Committee, chaired by Al Cross, will work with SPJ leaders and the FOI Committee to advocate for open government at all levels from localities to Washington, D.C. One special emphasis will be fighting efforts to repeal or curtail public notice advertising by state and local government.

Government Relations also will be working closely with the FOI Committee. Al and Linda will each serve as members of the other committee.

- The Communications Committee, chaired by Lauren Bartlett, is working on a strategic communications plan aimed at creating unified messaging and ideas for key initiatives on our core missions. The committee also is working on a plan to position SPJ national leaders as experts on various media topics.

-Lauren also is chairing a subcommittee whose purpose will be to produce a white paper on where our industry is headed and that will list some innovative best practices by media organizations.

- The International Journalism Committee, chaired by Ricardo Sandoval Palos,  is evaluating what our policy should be when individuals or groups of journalists apply to join SPJ or to start their own chapter, as a group of journalism students in Qatar did two years ago.

- The Awards Committee, chaired by Ginny Frizzi, is weighing whether it would make sense to honor some of our recently deceased SPJ leaders by naming some of our awards after them.

- The Freelance Committee’s special project this year will be to develop a freelancers’ resource guide. Dana Neuts chairs this group.

-The Legal Defense Fund, chaired by Hagit Limor, will continue assisting journalists by funding court battles for their First Amendment rights while working with staff to explore new options for fundraising.

- The Professional Development Committee, chaired by Deb Wenger, will continue producing online tutorials for our members and will try this year to offer some webinars.

-The Journalism Education Committee, chaired by Rebecca Talent,  is looking at ways to support high school journalism programs that are facing elimination because of budget cuts. The committee also is sharing syllabi and best practices with new faculty and encouraging more minority applicants for the Mark of Excellence awards.

- The Digital Media Committee, chaired by Jennifer Peebles, will be working on a special project aimed at creating an interactive digital timeline that will allow visitors to our website to explore SPJ’s rich, 103-year history.

-The GenJ Committee, chaired by Lynn Walsh, is continuing to blog on its excellent site on the SPJ blogs network. They are also trying to come up with a more contemporary and less retro name for the “Liner Notes” blog.

-I have also appointed a special committee, chaired by past president Irwin Gratz, to study whether it’s feasible and desirable to create virtual chapters or affinity groups that would consist of members who share a common professional interest, such as freelancing or a specialty beat like religion or court reporting.

- And last but not least, I’ve asked Mike Koretzky to lead a “Blue Sky” Committee. I’ve asked this group if we had $10,000 or $50,000 or $100,000, how could we best spend it? There’s no money in the budget for this, but let’s first see what this panel recommends.

Will all of these initiatives be adopted? Not necessarily. Where there are policy questions involved, the SPJ board of directors will ultimately decide.

But thanks to the efforts of all these volunteers, I feel like our SPJ year is off to a good start.

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