Archive for the ‘Government relations’ Category


Witnessing the testimony of Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée

Seven months after Jamal Khashoggi was brutally slain inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, his fiancée traveled to the United States for the first time to testify before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee for Human Rights.

 

Hatice Cengiz, center, ahead of testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights. Also pictured are Joel Simon, executive director of Committee to Protect Journalists, Sarah Repucci, senior director of Freedom House, and Gulchehra Hoja, a Uighar reporter for Radio Free Asia.

 

At this May 16 hearing, Hatice Cengiz called on the United States to pressure Saudi Arabia to investigate the case and bring the perpetrators to justice. As Congressmembers pointed out during the testimony, the Central Intelligence Agency has concluded with “high confidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman ordered the killing.

In emotional testimony, Cengiz called on Congressmembers to live up to the country’s historical role as a model of press freedom and to pressure Saudi Arabia to hold the perpetrators accountable.

“I cannot understand that the world has not done anything about this,” she said through a Turkish translator. “We still don’t know why he was killed. We don’t know where his corpse is.”

She described how the late Washington Post columnist would tell her about the beauty of Washington, D.C., saying she would not miss Turkey when they moved there after their wedding. Cengiz was the last person to see Khashoggi before he entered the Saudi consulate to get paperwork required for their marriage.

Cengiz described Khashoggi’s admiration for the American values of freedom of expression.

“The reason why Jamal came to the U.S. was because people like him were in jail in Saudi Arabia, and here he could be their voice,” she said. “It wasn’t only Jamal who was killed, it was the American values we are discussing here today.”

 

Representative Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chair of the House Intelligence Committee and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus. We discussed press freedom after the testimony.

 

I traveled to Washington, D.C. this week to watch the two-hour testimony about the dangers of reporting on human rights. The high-level session also included Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Sarah Repucci, senior director of Freedom House, and Gulchehra Hoja, a Uighar reporter for Radio Free Asia.

The Society of Professional Journalists has joined press freedom groups from around the world in pressuring Washington, and in particular, the Trump administration, to demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice. In October 2018, I wrote an open letter to the White House on behalf of SPJ urging it to insist on a full and transparent independent investigation.

The world, and Cengiz, are still waiting.

–30–

Speech at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on World Press Freedom Day

These remarks were delivered at the start of a panel at the United Nations on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2019. Watch the panel. My remarks begin at the 1:20 mark.

This followed the Society of Professional Journalists media nonprofit summit a week earlier, known as Quo Vadis Democracy in an Age of Digital Disinformation.

 

Pictured from left to right, Ricardo de Guimarães Pinto, liaison officer for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Warren Hogue, senior adviser for external relations at the International Peace Institute and a former New York Times foreign correspondent, Meredith Broussard, associate director of the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Moderator Emanuele Sapienza, global policy specialist for civil engagement at the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support at the United Nations Development Program, Stephen Adler, Editor-in-Chief of Thomson Reuters, and me.

 

Remarks at the United Nations on May 3, 2019

Thank you, Maher, and I’d like to extend my especial thanks to Ricardo for giving me this awesome privilege to represent my organization, the Society of Professional Journalists, here at the United Nations. It is an honor to be able to speak alongside such highly esteemed journalists. I had to pinch myself to make certain that I am actually speaking between Stephen Adler and Warren Hogue.

I also want to thank UNESCO for weaving together press freedom and electoral integrity into a timely theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day.

Although this is a global event addressing the challenges that disinformation poses to the core democratic values of press freedom and electoral transparency, an issue that has emerged again and again, from Brazil to India, it strikes me as appropriate that we’re meeting today here in New York.

The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which concluded with an all New Yorker finale, put the institutions that defend democracies worldwide on high alert.

To be sure, there was already no shortage of electoral threats, from unintentionally flawed ballots – think of the hand recount in Florida in 2000 – to outright forms of coercion.

Likewise, on the many long campaign trails, not a few politicians over the years have repeated half-truths and outright falsehoods in the hope that the election may be won by the time their deceptive campaign messages were debunked.

But in 2016, we woke up to the reality that freedom of expression itself had been weaponized.

The enemies of strong democratic values had learned a new trick. They had turned the power of self-expression on social media platforms — which only five years earlier had helped unleash the natural desire for self-determination in the Arab Spring — into a cloaking device that allowed them to wage a surreptitious influence campaign.

Social media bots generated by troll farms; deceptive political banner ads; and spear-phishing computer hacks coupled with selective leaks became low-cost, highly effective disinformation tools requiring little technological know-how.

Over the last two years, the major platforms have retaliated by employing internal checks, automated by algorithms, alongside small armies of human content moderators to try to combat the malicious trolls spreading deliberate disinformation. However, we know very little about these defensive maneuvers because the platforms are controlled by private companies not subject to the strictures of public entities obeying guidelines of transparency and accountability.

The organization that I represent, the Society of Professional Journalists, held a summit last weekend to discuss this nefarious synergy between anti-democratic forces and digital disinformation. More than 30 press freedom groups convened in New York to hear experts on cyber security and digital disinformation dissect what had happened in 2016, much of which has now been verified by the Mueller report, and more terrifyingly, what might occur as the opponents of democracy become more technologically sophisticated.

For example, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, described how hackers might in the future break into electoral systems to alter the voting rolls in such a subtle manner that voters may not realize why they are being turned away at the polls. She pointed to a line in the Mueller report briefly mentioning that the electoral systems in Florida were breached in the 2016 election.

Of course, this scenario involves a higher degree of technological sophistication than Internet trolling and goes well beyond the type of online misinformation that the press can correct in real time. Government agencies and cyber security consultants will need to ensure that electoral systems are protected against such cyber threats and this seems to have been the case in the 2018 congressional elections. But henceforward journalists covering elections will need to be more vigilant, and particularly more tech savvy, than ever before in order to observe potential voting system threats and by doing so preserve the democratic process.

Deliberate disinformation, on the other hand, whether spread by state or non-state actors with the intent of skewing an election, may have an even more insidious purpose. Another one of our summit speakers, Laura Rosenberger, now the director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Alliance for Securing Democracy, was the foreign policy adviser for Hilary Clinton’s campaign. She pointed out that when the trolls began to operate, there was no emergent Republican candidate. The real goal, she asserted, was undermining public faith in democratic institutions.

At this time, we’re being asked to put our faith in algorithms to solve this crisis. These same algorithms failed to block one in five of the videos of the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand in March. The numbers are staggering. Users tried to upload one and a half million videos after the shooter livestreamed his attack. Although most were blocked before they could be uploaded, some 300,000 of these videos got through this cyber security net.

Another serious concern is the increasing sophistication of so-called “deep fakes,” digital audio, video and still images that are hyper-realistic forgeries that blur the lines between fact and fiction.

This battle against disinformation and deep fakes is likely to rage for some time, as each defensive measure is countered by new technological advances on the other side, making it akin to an arms race we’re already only too familiar with.

As someone who represents other journalists, I ask what measures can journalists effectively take to counter this potential tsunami of digital disinformation as elections come into the forefront of the news?

Firstly, more than a dozen of the press groups that gathered for last weekend’s summit drafted a resolution to reaffirm our role as watchdogs. This may sound an obvious statement on World Press Freedom Day, but we must recommit ourselves to presenting the public with the factual information that it needs to make sound decisions on vital questions, to include electoral decisions.

However, in order for citizens to be well informed, journalists must be free to do their jobs without fear of reprisal, intimidation or threat of physical harm. This is a tall order. We were honored to have Maria Ressa at our summit, where she eloquently advocated for the rights of a free unhindered press before leaving for the Philippines, Duterte and her destiny. She reminded the room full of journalists who are relatively safe within the borders of the United States that staying free sometimes takes genuine courage.

Secondly, our summit resolution encourages journalists to invite the public to become our allies in this fight. We urge the public to help journalists correct mistakes and counter misinformation they find online, whether that information appears to be malicious or simply mistaken.

Finally, we should all hold governments and private platforms to account, pushing them to develop technological and regulatory solutions, but at the same time making sure their actions are more transparent and they remain engaged with the public so that our right to freedom of speech and association are not infringed upon without the people’s consent.

Together, we must tackle this threat to our democracies pro-actively and with the optimism that we can preserve our dearly won freedoms. Journalists here in the United States can be encouraged that our Congressmembers recently submitted a resolution expressing their sense of the, quote: “importance of local print and digital journalism to the continued welfare, transparency, and prosperity of government at every level and the continuation and freedom of the United States as it is known today.”

This is a global problem, and U.S. Congressmembers introduced several bipartisan bills this term recognizing that. For example, The Global Electoral Exchange Act would promote the exchange of electoral best practices internationally, particularly in the areas of cyber security and data transmission.

In conclusion, democracies have collectively tackled worse foes. Arguably, the democratic world faced a far greater threat from fascism in the 1930s and ‘40s. Out of that global conflict emerged the intergovernmental institutions such as the UN, and high moral standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This challenge may require a similar collaborative effort to stand against the forces of disinformation.

Thank you.

–30–

Speech in Seoul about the role of journalists in peace negotiations

Note: At the start of my term, I vowed to post the significant speeches that I made in this space. Well, it’s been a busy couple of months so I am getting caught up. Here’s the remarks that I made at the World Journalists Conference in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday, March 25, 2019. The theme of the conference was Role of the Press for Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and World Peace.

 

 

A Free Press Lights the Way Forward

As the President of the Society of Professional Journalists in the United States, I am honored to speak to such a distinguished gathering of global journalists. We meet here at a pivotal moment on the Korean peninsula.

Many of you are visiting South Korea for the first time. Those of you who were here at the World Journalists Conference last year will remember the hopeful political climate. We met a week after South and North Korean athletes marched arm-in-arm into the stadium of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.

That was such a surprising sight after a nerve-wracking period of North Korean missile and bomb tests, which began with the North conducting its first intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 4, 2017, provocatively the same day as the United States celebrated its national Independence Day. Yet more ICBM launches followed, and most alarmingly, the country’s sixth, and most powerful nuclear test, which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb.

Amid those fearful developments, bellicose taunts were exchanged between the leaders of North Korea and the United States. Who can forget U.S. President Donald Trump calling Kim Jong-Un “little rocket man,” or Kim denouncing him as a “dotard?” Nevertheless, the world was forced to sit up, it could hardly do otherwise, because even though this name-calling was school boyish, the words were backed by nuclear arsenals. Then, just as startling, we journalists from around the world, gathered here last February, heard the announcement that the U.S. president had agreed to a bilateral summit with the North Korean leader. All this augured well for a step forward toward world peace.

Since then, for the past year, close observers of events related to the Korean peninsula have been witnesses to a five-act drama. In the first act, the global press speculated about where, when, and even if, the two men would meet. Then the world was mesmerized by the theatricality of the Singapore summit, which turned more on the personal chemistry of the principals than on the preparations of professional diplomats. In the months of uncertainty following the initial summit, which did not produce much in terms of concrete results, questions emerged about the utility of bilateral negotiations at the highest level. Then came the disappointment of the Hanoi summit, which ended prematurely, without a formal declaration. Finally, satellite images pointed to the rebuilding of test facilities in the North.

As this story played out, journalists have been there every step of the way, documenting not only the words of the principal protagonists, but also the insights of political operatives and policy experts, the history of the Korean peninsula, and public reactions to the high-stakes nuclear negotiations. In short, they have not stinted to report on the hope, the danger, and yes, the occasional absurdity of the situation.

In monitoring these unfolding momentous events it has been refreshing and an inspiration to note how press freedom has improved by leaps and bounds here in South Korea. While you tour the country this week, as I did last year, you’ll see dozens of national and regional newspapers on newsstands. The current government can rightfully boast that it healed a longstanding rift at the public broadcasters, and the country jumped ahead 20 places in the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

This renaissance of the free press here, part of a broader trend of growing freedoms in the country since the late 20th century, goes hand-in-glove with the culture of innovation and progress. In the span of a few generations, South Korea has evolved from a poverty-stricken, war-torn land to one of the wealthiest and most vibrant of the global economies, and we Americans are proud to call South Korea our ally — one of our most stalwart.

From the standpoint of the organization I represent, the Society of Professional Journalists, a free press is like a beacon that, by radiating the light of truth outward, helps expose to the public gaze even the most sophisticated subterfuges. By contrast, limiting the coverage of negative outcomes darkens the way forward.

Of course, when we talk about concepts such as press freedom and impartiality, we are discussing ideals. These are goals that we, as journalists, must constantly strive toward, rather than destinations to attain. In some countries, there are still many roadblocks along the way. Without a strong judicial framework protecting the free flow of information, governments can cut off access to news outlets and journalists may work at their own peril. In such difficult cases, we need not only journalists dedicated to the highest ethical standards of the profession, but also a legal community in support of freedom of information and of the press.

Journalists are widely perceived as the eyes and ears of the public. They are not diplomats. They do not represent their government, nor do they speak for special interests, such as political parties or social groups with which they may privately identify. When events take a turn for the worse, when summits collapse without results, when there is evidence of retrenchment, they must focus on the events as they unfold.

To be sure, there is more than simply firsthand reporting; there is a legitimate role for opinion journalism. This goal of denuclearization warrants plenty of opinion pieces, but they should be clearly indicated as such. That permits readers and viewers to understand that the selection of facts has been guided by the desire to validate an opinion.

But reporters writing the first draft of history — particularly those covering crucial events such as nuclear disarmament negotiations that so profoundly influence world peace — should render a full and impartial account of events. It is especially important that a free press functioning in an open society behaves responsibly by focusing on the legitimate security concerns of each side; but it should not omit to report on troubling developments. Journalists must report what is done, what is said, and whenever possible, what is unsaid.

To obtain the fullest possible picture of key events like the summits with North Korea, it is important to cover the public reaction. After the Hanoi summit, the Washington Post published an account of the disappointment felt by many South Koreans. One South Korean expert described his fellow citizens as “heartbroken.” A free press provides an impartial chronicle, and in this case, informed Americans of the sentiments of their allies halfway around the world.

With such high stakes, the public has a right to as complete and realistic an account of events as possible. As the Washington Post’s own logo proclaims, “Democracy dies in darkness.” When reporting on nuclear negotiations, this adage may be taken literally as well as figuratively.

A story of the scope and potential impact of the nuclear negotiations on the Korean peninsula is, naturally, of interest in every country around the world. You’ll each produce stories during your time here for your compatriots back home. The greatest contribution that we, as journalists, can make to peace on the Korean peninsula is to report back honestly and fully what we see here.

Thank you.

–30–

 

 

Recent Attacks Against Journalists Are Attacks Against American Freedoms

In the last several weeks journalists have been pinned against a wall, arrested, assaulted, told to get “back in your cages,” and threatened with gun violence by a sitting state governor.

The key word left out of the sentence above: American.

Those incidents happened to American journalists. American journalists working and doing their jobs in the United States, a country that has a freedom designated for the press.

If you’ve read the headlines or followed the stories on social media, you may have seen the threat of gun violence called a joke, or the event that resulted in an assault charge for a newly elected Congressman, called inappropriate unless the reporter deserved it.

These incidents are not funny and should not be dismissed. The words being spoken are also not funny and they should not be treated as jokes.

These incidents are an attack against the freedoms America was founded on and should be taken seriously.

Most importantly they need to stop. 

In the United States, the First Amendment protects a free press. This includes protecting an individual’s right to ask questions of elected officials without the threat of violence. Journalists should not be arrested or physically harmed for simply trying to do their jobs. Journalists are the eyes and ears of the public. When they are prevented from doing their jobs, the public loses and American freedom is threatened.

The United States, whether data and reality always supports it or not, is often used as an example of a free society by others around the world. This includes evaluating what a free press looks like.

Around the world, we are seeing journalists killed or physically threatened while doing their jobs. These incidents also need to be stopped and should be taken seriously. It is also why it is even more important to push back and stop the incidents happening here.

What we allow to happen on U.S. soil could set the tone for what others experience and do elsewhere, outside our borders.

These recent incidents, that include physical violence, anti-press rhetoric, and legal action are steps away from freedom. They are incidents that should not be happening in a country that was founded on protecting freedom of the press. These incidents threaten American democracy.

Right now, there is undeniable tension between journalists, news organizations, and the public. Polls continue to show the American public’s trust in media is at an all-time low.

While there are examples of reporting and journalists that may have helped contribute to that, we, as Americans, both journalists, and non-journalists, need to work together to stop this threat against our freedom.

Do we want to live in a country where people are not free to ask politicians questions? A country where the information the public receives only comes from those in power? A country where you are not free to publish information people may disagree with?

I know that is not the America I want to live in. It is also not the America people have fought hard, in some cases sacrificing their lives, to protect.

In the name of freedom, let’s stand together.

SPJ and Journalism Organizations Respond To Election of Donald Trump

Last week, after the election, the Society of Professional Journalists and other journalism organizations released statements reinforcing their commitment to protecting the First Amendment and fighting for the public’s right to know.

Since the election SPJ has seen an increase in donations. Some, when donating, have specifically cited the election outcome.

I want you to know that SPJ is ready to defend the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and push for government transparency.

We hope that you will continue to join us in this fight. If you have ideas or thoughts or want to help in any way, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. Also, if you need help donating or renewing your membership, we would gladly help with that as well.

Here is a list of statements made by journalism organizations:

Lynn Walsh is the National President for the Society of Professional Journalists. In her day job she leads the NBC 7 Investigates team in San Diego, California. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for public information. Connect with her on Twitter, @LWalsh.

The World is Watching This Election Day, Report Ethically and Responsibly

"I Voted"

It’s almost here, Election Day 2016.

It seems like journalists and news organizations have been covering this race for years. That’s probably because some have. The length, combined with the twists and turns throughout, have made this is a long and tiresome race to cover as a journalist.

Maybe, like me, you have found yourself getting very cynical about the whole process. Maybe you have found yourself becoming less and less interested in the local issues on your ballot.

Well, let’s all snap out of it.

Last week, while speaking to a group of Society of Professional Journalists members at San Diego State University, I was reminded that covering an election, an event at the core of our democracy, is special. The students, covering their first U.S. Presidential election, were excited, eagerly sharing with me their plans for election night, November 8.

After my conversation with them I was a little annoyed with myself for not feeling the same way. I was also reminded how important our, journalists, coverage of this and every election is for the public, our future and our democracy.

So, yes, some of us have been following candidates across the country, working countless hours, for more than a year. Yes, some of us have been treated poorly and disrespectfully while just trying to do our jobs. And yes, we all have been told the “media” is biased and is rigging the election.

But, despite all of this, our work, our information, our actions, are helping the public make informed decisions about the future of our country. For that we should all be proud.

So, this is a reminder, to stand tall and continue to serve this country like journalists know best: ethically, responsibly, accurately and fairly.

The world is truly watching, let’s show them what professional journalists can do. And if you have not heard it yet: Thank you.

For tips on how to cover the election responsibly, click here and also review the SPJ Code of Ethics.

Lynn Walsh is the National President for the Society of Professional Journalists. In her day job she leads the NBC 7 Investigates team in San Diego, California. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for public information. Connect with her on Twitter, @LWalsh. 

Baltimore Police Email Search Fee Hinders Public Access and Decreases Accountability

Baltimore Police Department

The Baltimore Police Department is charging $50 if a member of the public requests emails from the department, making public access to information and holding government officials more difficult.

MuckRock posted this earlier this week.

According to the policy, outlined in a response to MuckRock, the department says it will charge the $50 email search fee before it will begin to process the request. If the fee is paid, the search begins, a review cost is determined and if the cost and terms are “agreed upon” the $50 fee is deducted from the final cost. Click here or look below to read more about the policy.

While it is a nice gesture for them to deduct the search fee from the total cost, charging just to begin a search threatens the public’s right to information. Emails from public agencies and public employees should be released to the public without prohibitive fees. This information belongs to the public. Members of the public should not have to pay a search fee for it. Charging before the request is even processed is even more prohibitive and threatening to the public’s right to know.

An email to the Baltimore Police Department was not returned. It is also unclear as to when or why this policy was implemented. MuckRock estimates it was sometime in the last two months.

Whatever the reason, the policy is prohibitive and makes requesting emails more difficult for the public. Since the public has a right to this information, there should not be extra steps to jump over or extra fees to be paid in order to obtain it.

Fighting for access to information is something the Society of Professional Journalists takes seriously. If you have been hindered by Baltimore PD’s policy, please let me know: @LWalsh or lwalsh@spj.org

More from the policy:

If you are requesting e-mails correspondence the following is the procedure to request BPD e-mail.

Request for BPD emails are handled by the Information and Technology Section (I T). BPD emails are handled separately from the City of Baltimore emails. BPD emails have a limited retrieval time frame. The cost of in-house retrieval is based on the number of email that must be reviewed before being disclosed. Confidential opinions, deliberations, advice or recommendations from one governmental employee or official to another for the purpose of assisting the latter official in the decision-making function may be withheld. In addition, part of an interagency, or intra-agency letter or memorandum that would not be available by law to a private party in litigation can be withheld.

The BPD can run a word, name or phase through the email retention system. The BPD can run individual email addresses or the entire BPD email system. Once the system identifies the emails with the word, name or phase each email will have to be review to determine what can be disclosed and their relevancy.

The average staff time of review e-mails for release is approximately 150-200 pages reviewed per hour (e-mails and attachments). Time differs depending on the size or complexity of the e-mails. Once all disclosable emails are identified the BPD will advise of the actual cost of producing the e-mails. There is a minimum charge of $50.00 to start the search and downloading of e-mails. After the number of emails is determined you will be provided with the review cost. If the costs and terms are agreed upon emails will be reviewed. The $50.00 search fee will be deducted from the final cost.

Government Employees Don’t Get To Decide Which Journalists Cover Them

A former soccer coach is acquitted in a murder trial. The prosecutor in the case holds a news conference after the verdict. Three journalists covering the trial are excluded.

The dateline for this story isn’t somewhere overseas. It’s unfortunately in our own backyard, in upstate New York.

Last week, St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rain barred The Watertown Daily Times reporter William Eckert and photographer Jason Hunter from a news conference after a not guilty verdict in the murder trial of Oral “Nick” Hillary.

Hillary was accused of stalking, strangling and killing 12-year-old Garrett Phillips. The trial has garnered media attention outside of New York, highlighted on national TV programs.

According to The Watertown Daily Times,  Rain excluded Eckert because she said he “‘is a dishonest reporter and I won’t have a dishonest reporter reporting to the community dishonestly.'” (Another journalist, Brit Hanson, was also blocked from the news conference but it has been reported that Rain said that happened in error.)

Click here to read Eckert explain how the events unfolded.

A photo of St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rains on the county website.

A photo of St. Lawrence County District Attorney Mary Rains on the county website.

This is unacceptable and threatens the right of a free press. If government officials use their power to decide which journalists are granted access to public information, involving the public, on public property, it threatens our rights and freedom to speak freely, gather information freely and publish freely.

This goes beyond granting someone an exclusive or first interview. This was a news conference where only a few people were excluded and they were excluded because of a government leader’s opinion of them and their work.

The government does not get to decide who reports on and covers them. The public should be outraged that a public official is trying to block their right to public information by blocking access to those that may ask critical questions or hold officials accountable. Excluding certain members of the press from interviews and news conferences interferes with the public’s right to know.

I join and support the New York State Associated Press Association, a group of New York newspaper and broadcast journalists, in condemning Rain’s actions.

“…It is inappropriate for you to attempt to control information by giving personal invitations to only certain reporters based on your preference for favorable coverage, or to bar reporters whose coverage you dislike,” the association president Tracy Ormsbee said in the letter.

Click here to read the full letter.

A response from Rain was not immediately received but will be added if it is.

The Watertown Daily Times is protesting and demanding an apology from Rain.

Putting the press above it all

RICHMOND, VA–When and where did a pair of binoculars become standard equipment for a political journalist?

Last week, at the Virginia Capitol.

The Virginia General Assembly, the world’s oldest deliberative body, convened for its 2016 session on Jan. 13, and reporters who cover the statehouse got a surprise.

Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch covers the Virginia Senate (Photo by Peter Vieth)

Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch covers the Virginia Senate (Photo by Peter Vieth)

Without notice and without explanation, the Republican majority (a 21-19 advantage) adopted a new rule: Reporters would no longer work from tables on the Senate floor; they were banished to the gallery above the chamber.

The practice of allowing reporters on the floor of the Senate dates back for decades. The journalists can follow the action and they have ready access to senators for interviews. Toward the end of a session, when a glut of legislation faces a deadline, floor placement allows quick access to substitute versions of bills and amendments.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, put an end to that.

Norment has enjoyed prickly relations with reporters over the years. Exactly why he did this is not hard to figure: It’s a poke in the eye at the press that has reported on his cozy relations with business, apparent favors granted and his sometimes messy personal life.

Because of this strike at the press, he has guaranteed that any story reporting the new rule will need to explain the strained relationship and dredge up all that history.

Norment isn’t alone in trying this press-unfriendly tactic. Republicans who control the Missouri Senate have done the same thing, according to an article in Columbia Journalism Review. In the Show-Me State, reporters will move March 29 from a table on the Senate floor to the gallery above. Last year, they were booted from first floor offices to the fifth floor, where there is no elevator access.

Jeff Schapiro, who covers politics for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, brought a little theater to the new arrangement in Richmond. The day after the new rule was adopted he was in the cramped new press space with a pair of binoculars to cover the action 20 feet below.

My office is a couple of blocks from the Virginia Capitol, a grand building designed by Thomas Jefferson. One wonders what Mr. Jefferson would think of the new restrictions on press access.

I went to the Senate last Thursday to check out the new arrangement for the statehouse press first-hand. A few quick observations:

• To get to the balcony, one has to ride one of two elevators three flights or climb as many flights of steep stairs.
• Reporters are confined to the far corners of the balcony, with five seats each on either side.
• You can’t see half of the Senate when you’re there. On each side, there is one electrical plug with two outlets. For long sessions, reporters better have a spare battery, maybe two or three, for their laptops and cellphones.
• The television people, with their cameras, will take up more space than just a single person.
• When things really get rolling, 10 seats may not be enough. Any additional space will eat into the seating allotted for the public.
• To get copies of floor amendments or substitute measures, so one is going to need to run up and down the aforementioned stairs, unless the elevators get to be lightning-fast.
• To buttonhole senators after a session breaks up, one is also going to need to run down those same steps before they slip away.

Will Norment’s rule make it impossible to cover the Senate? No, but it will make it more difficult.

And it’s the attitude behind this stunt that is troublesome. This doesn’t just hurt the press and the journalists who cover the Senate. Reporters are the public’s eyes and ears when the Assembly is in session. Virginia has a part-time legislature, so that isn’t for a long period of time.

Twenty other senators went along with this. Schapiro reported in his Jan. 17 column in the T-D that no other Republican senator is publicly defending the new rule…they want to change the subject.

Democrats in the Senate oppose the rule, and it’s especially distressing to think that press access and press freedom has become a partisan issue.

I talked with Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, as we left the General Assembly Thursday.

He shook his head in disbelief when I asked about the new situation. “It isn’t healthy,” he said. “We have nothing to fear but ourselves.”

With his binoculars, Schapiro got the attention of the Senate leadership. Word was senators’ laptops may be outfitted with privacy screens to prevent any view from above.

Norment didn’t like the binoculars. “Why do you keep doing that crap?” he asked Schapiro.

That’s a question we’d all like to ask the Senate Majority Leader.

 

SPJ Board Meeting Recap

The SPJ spring board meeting was this past Sat., April 18 in Indianapolis. Each meeting is streamed live, but in case you missed it or don’t want to sit through the 6+ hour recording, here are the highlights:

  • The board approved the Fiscal Year 2016 budget. To executive director Joe Skeel’s credit, SPJ has a sizable surplus. We are operating in the black and expect to continue to do so with sufficient reserves set aside for a rainy day and to spend on worthy projects.
  • The slate of candidates for the next SPJ board cycle was announced. New candidates have until about a week before EIJ15 to announce their candidacy. So far, there are only two contested elections (secretary-treasurer and at-large director). Interested candidates should contact Sonny Albarado, past president of SPJ and this year’s nominations chair, or click here for more info.
  • We are seeking nominations to replace regional director Tony Hernandez (Region 12). He moved out of the region, and we are looking for a replacement, effective June 1. We also thanked Tony for his service to SPJ.
  • SDX President Robert Leger gave an update on the SDX Foundation, including the transition of moving programming responsibilities and funding from SPJ back to SDX.
  • The Ethics Committee, led by Andrew Seaman, is beginning the posting of additional materials to supplement the revised SPJ Code of Ethics that was approved by the delegates at EIJ14. In addition, the Code has been translated into five languages (French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Arabic). Those versions are being proofread and, once approved, they’ll be posted to SPJ.org.
  • The board discussed how to handle the proposed Marriage & Conscience Act now in committee in Louisiana. The board will send a letter to the Louisiana legislature citing its concern about the bill which addresses religious and moral beliefs, unlike other religious freedom legislation being considered in other states. Our hope is that the bill will be defeated. If not, SPJ will have to reconsider hosting its 2016 spring board meeting, and SPJ and its partner RTDNA will have to discuss the implications for EIJ16, both scheduled for New Orleans next year. President-elect Paul Fletcher and secretary-treasurer Lynn Walsh will work on the letter to the legislature and share it with the board for input by the end of this month. We will also share it with RTDNA, and they will vote on whether or not they wish to sign the letter as well.
  • The SPJ board gave staff the go-ahead to expand its criteria for the selection of convention cities.
  • I announced two new diversity initiatives: (1) Adding members of other journalism organizations (e.g., AAJA, NAJA, NLGJA, NABJ, NAHJ, etc.) to the Diversity Committee, led by April Bethea, as a pilot project. If this is successful, we hope to expand this to include members of these organizations on other committees to help expand the diversity within our organization. (2) Creating a partnership between the Diversity Committee and Membership Committee to develop diversity-related resources for our members. We’ll first create a list of programming ideas, gathering successful program information from SPJ chapters and regions. We’ll expand to include other resources such as how to identify local chapters of other organizations that we could partner with, and link to other diversity-related resources, such as the NLGJA style guide and the diversity style guide project that is supported by the SDX Foundation.
  • I announced the Membership Committee’s upcoming promotion, #spj4all, a one-day campaign to reiterate our organization’s acceptance of journalists from all backgrounds. The committee, led by Robyn Sekula, will share details soon.
  • Four new chapters were added to SPJ ranks.
  • Secretary-treasurer Lynn Walsh announced SPJ’s new career center, a dramatically improved version of our job bank which includes links to additional resources.
  • At the request of FOI chair and immediate past president Dave Cuillier, the SPJ board approved a $30,000 transfer from our fiscal year end reserves to the Advocacy Fund. The board discussed how money would be spent and what the approval process might be.
  • Regional director Tom Johnson received the board’s endorsement of his “It’s the People’s Data” project.
  • At-large director Bill McCloskey presented a new SPJ Convention Voting Transparency Policy, developed by the By-laws Committee. The policy was approved.
  • Jennifer Royer, communications strategist, and I discussed the proposed guidelines for handling the deaths of prominent journalists and international matters. Each will be handled on a case-by-case basis, and will rely on good judgment.
  • In Becky Tallent’s absence, an update about the release of the Journalism Education Committee’s new book, “Still Captive? History, Law and the Teaching of High School Journalism,” was shared in the board packet and via email.
  • President-elect Paul Fletcher informed the board that 41% of our membership is not affiliated with a chapter, meaning they are not represented by delegates at convention. At my request, Paul has formed a task force to explore the ramifications of this problem and to make recommendations for correcting it.
  • The SPJ board accepted the Executive Committee’s recommendations for 9 of the 10 overall SPJ awards, as outlined in the board packet. Changes will be effective in 2016.
  • The SPJ board discussed the selection of future Wells Key winners. The Executive Committee recommended that the selection group be expanded from the SPJ officers to the full Executive Committee. This recommendation was approved with two amendments – providing the full board with a list of nominees for the current year and the previous nine years (info. to be kept confidential and not shared outside the board), and after the Wells Key is awarded, the Executive Committee will explain to the board why that candidate was selected. These changes will also be effective 2016.
  • We took a photo of the full board for historical purposes and to kick off the #spj4all campaign. #spjlove

The board meeting was packed full of agenda items, and we had good, thoughtful, respectful discussion and debate about these topics and others. In addition, I thanked the board, volunteers and staff for their hard work and continued commitment to SPJ. We’ve accomplished a lot in the seven months I’ve been president, but there is much more to do.

If you have any questions about the meeting, or you’d like to volunteer, I welcome your comments and ideas. You can reach me via email at dneuts@spj.org.

Thank you,

Dana Neuts
SPJ President

 

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