Medford officials should drop charges against reporter arrested at Hawthorne Park

Arresting reporters for doing their jobs is one of the hallmarks of a totalitarian dictatorship.

So it is disappointing to hear that a journalist covering the eviction of a homeless camp at a Medford, Ore., park was arrested while she tried to observe police actions.

April Ehrlich, a reporter with Jefferson Public Radio, and vice president of the SPJ Oregon pro chapter, was among 11 people arrested at Hawthorne Park Sept. 22.

Ehrlich was cited for trespassing, interfering with police and resisting arrest.

I join with SPJ Oregon in calling for Medford city officials to withdraw the charges and to review the actions of police that day in the park, as well as take steps to ensure that officers respect First Amendment rights.

She had gone to the park to cover the city’s eviction of homeless people camping at the park. This happened at the time the Almeda Fire had ravaged the area, and one of the things Ehrlich was there to find out was if any of the people at the homeless camp had fled the fire.

While interviewing people, she was arrested by several police officers, despite her identifying herself as a journalist and, according to JPR, not interfering with the evacuation order.

City officials claim that the park was closed and Ehrlich refused to go to a media staging area when ordered to do so. But the staging area, according to JPR, was at a place where journalists could neither see nor hear what was going on, nor could they talk to the people being evicted.

Journalists serve as witnesses to give the public the information they need to hold government accountable. It is a little hard to do that from a staging area that is far removed from what public servants are doing in the name of the people.

Ehrlich and other legal observers were in a place where they could best see what was happening, and could accurately, if they had been allowed, to say how the eviction was handled. Corralling the press to a place where they couldn’t see the action, and arresting those who could does little, if nothing, to inspire confidence that the eviction was handled in a legal, humane and dignified manner.

The mere fact that Ehrlich was arrested throws what happened in the park into serious question.

Again, I urge Medford city officials to drop the charges against Ehrlich and other legal observers, and commit to being more transparent.


While judge protects journalists in Portland, court ruling in Seattle endangers reporters

UPDATE: Within hours of the issuance of the temporary restraining order in Portland, federal agents shot Oregon Public Broadcasting journalist Rebecca Ellis with tear-gas projectiles. She was not injured, but it it appears to be a flagrant violation of the order.

Journalists won some and lost some in the past week in the Pacific Northwest.

The good news was that a federal judge temporarily barred federal agents from using force or threats against journalists covering the demonstrations in downtown Portland.

But that legal victory was tempered by a King County Superior Court judge’s ruling that the Seattle Times and other news outlets had to turn over unpublished photos and videos of a violent May 30 protest, despite a strong shield law in Washington state.

Both cities have seen protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes. There has been violence with the protests, and President Donald Trump sent federal agents to protect federal property in the city.

But there are reports that the agents, who do not wear agency patches on their camouflage uniforms and body armor, have gone outside the boundaries of the federal courthouse and other federal buildings, grabbing people off the street and bundling them into unmarked vehicles.

During the protests, these agents have also fired “impact munitions” — so-called less-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets, beanbag rounds and wooden dowels — at journalists and legal observers during the protests.

Attorney Matthew Borden, representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the assaults on journalists were not accidents, but the “acts of intimidation by a tyrant, and they have no place in the city of Portland.”

We’ve already seen this happen in other cities, where police target journalists who are observing the protests and police actions, some of which border on violent themselves.

In a 22-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon issued a temporary order barring the federal agents from willfully targeting, threatening or intimidating journalists who were covering the protests, as well as legal observers.

Simon rejected the U.S. Justice Department’s arguments that it was too hard for the officers to tell the difference between journalists and violent protesters, as well as the assertion that journalists did not have a right to access above the public to the closed-off areas.

“When wrongdoing is underway, officials have great incentive to blindfold the eyes of the Fourth Estate. The free press is the guardian of the public interest, and the judiciary is the guardian of the press,” Simon wrote.

Unfortunately, farther up Interstate 5, King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee believes journalists should be the Seattle Police Department’s eyes rather than those of the public.

Lee upheld a subpoena ordering the Seattle Times, KIRO 7, KING 5, KOMO 4 and KCPQ 13 to turn over all unpublished photos and unaired video and outtakes from coverage of a May 30 demonstration downtown.

Police say they are seeking the video and photos to identify who stole firearms from SPD vehicles that were set afire during the demonstration.

Lee claimed that the police had met the burden of overcoming the state’s shield law by demonstrating that the information was “highly material and relevant” and that all other reasonable means were exhausted.

First, let me say that stolen weapons are a serious matter. But it’s also no excuse to force journalists to surrender information that is protected by the state’s shield law.

It is highly unlikely that police have exhausted all reasonable efforts to get the information from other sources. For example, there are social media posts, surveillance camera footage from nearby businesses and homes and plain old shoe-leather detective work. Police could also offer a reward for information that will loosen someone’s lips enough to finger the suspects.

Forcing journalists to turn over footage, photos and other information gathered in the process of reporting undermines journalistic independence and puts journalists in danger.

A shield law recognizes the Fourth Estate’s role as an independent observer capable of bearing record to government’s actions and informing the public of what they do. In order to do that, journalists need protection from turning over their work materials, unpublished information or names of confidential sources to government.

It’s akin to the privilege we grant clergy, doctors and lawyers not to disclose things they were told by those they work with. While it may frustrate police and prosecutors, those privileges ensure that society works and justice is served.

The same goes for journalists. Allowing us to protect information ensures that we can do our jobs of holding the powerful accountable and helping those who are wronged.

If this subpoena is allowed to stand, it will make journalists’ jobs much harder — and dangerous.

There are already reports of protesters attacking photojournalists  because they don’t want their pictures taken. If journalists are forced to give information to the police, we will be seen as merely informants for the government and targeted even more for violence.

To follow that path to its conclusion, it would mean journalists would likely not want to cover a demonstration for fear of violence, and thus deprive both sides of an independent observer who can stand as a witness for what happened on both sides.

Unless police Chief Carmen Best and Mayor Jenny Durkan exercise some common sense and withdraw the subpoena, we have to hope that an appeals court judge has more courage than Judge Lee.


COVID-19 and SPJ

I hope everyone’s doing what they can to stay healthy in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As you know, out of an abundance of caution, we have postponed our regional conference until Oct. 31. Let’s hope that this will be over by then, giving us a really good reason to celebrate the great journalism that is coming out of the Pacific Northwest during this trying time.

At this point, the Excellence in Journalism convention in Washington, D.C. is still a go.

This also means that we won’t have a luncheon to honor the winners of the Mark of Excellence Award in our region. They’ll get their certificates by mail, but to maintain some sense of public recognition, I plan to do a Facebook Live on the region page to read off the winners.

For chapter leaders, the deadline for annual reports is now June 10, due to the fact that all of us are preoccupied with covering COVID-19 at the same time trying to keep ourselves and families safe and healthy.

When this is all over, we’ll be able to look back at the body of work we have done keeping our communities informed on the state of the pandemic, improving the signal-to-noise ratio out there, and maybe even finding stories to give people a respite from worries of the day.

Good luck to everyone.


Washington bill to restrict access to employee birthdates does more harm than good

This statement was sent to the Washington State Senate Committee on State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections

Committee members,
My name is Donald W. Meyers, and I am the regional coordinator for the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s oldest and broadest journalism group. The region I represent covers the Pacific Northwest, including Washington state. I am also a working journalist with more than 30 years of experience in weekly and daily newspapers.
I am also an identity theft victim. I know firsthand the upheaval having one’s identity stolen and misused can create in a person’s life. In my case, I was nearly arrested, hounded by bill collectors and had restricted access to my own money as the result of someone impersonating me.
Speaking both on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists and personally, I am opposed to Second Substitute House Bill 1888. While it appears to be based in good intentions on the surface, it only serves to add another restriction on information the public needs to hold government accountable and does absolutely nothing to protect people from identity theft.
This bill was primarily drafted because the SEIU did not want its members receiving what it perceives as anti-union messages from the Freedom Foundation. The arguments about identity theft and protecting people from stalking and domestic abuse appear to be an attempt at scaring the Legislature to take action that overrides a decision of the state’s highest court.
Rather than abridging the Public Records Act to silence an opponent, the SEIU should instead respond with its own messages to refute the Freedom Foundation’s arguments. As Justice Louis Brandeis said in Whitney v. California, the remedy to bad speech is more speech, not enforced silence.
Having access to birthdates and photos serves a vital public good. It is a way of verifying someone’s identity. That is crucial when reporting on court proceedings or investigating corruption in government. For instance, without birthdates, it would be difficult to compare a list of school bus drivers against people who have DUI convictions. It provides a way to differentiate between people with identical names.
While the current bill offers an exemption for the news media, that is troubling in the current climate of hostility toward journalists coming from all levels of government. It creates a way to deny journalists access to information by someone who, for whatever reason, decides that an outlet does not fit their definition of a journalist.
As for the issues of identity theft, a birthdate is not as vital a piece of information as some would think. The true key piece of information is the Social Security number, which is already has legal safeguards in place. Likewise, it is unlikely that an identity thief is going to use the Public Records Act, which would create a paper trail that could be easily traced. Instead, they use phishing schemes and dumpster diving to get the information they need. In my case, my Social Security number was lifted from a class roster at a private university that was passed around so students could check in for the day’s class.
There are also mechanisms in place that safeguard information on people who are experiencing domestic violence or stalking that do not require creating yet another exemption to the Public Records Act.
And in the unlikely event someone does use a public record for stalking or identity theft, there are already laws in place to prosecute such behavior. There is no need to enact a law that infringes on people’s exercise of a lawful right.
I would recommend that this bill not be passed, as it only restricts people’s access to necessary public record. It harms the public’s good while providing no genuine benefit in return.
I thank you for your consideration.

Donald W. Meyers,
Region 10 Coordinator
Society of Professional Journalists


It’s contest time

The Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest is accepting entries for its annual contest. The contest is open to all journalists in the Pacific Northwest, specifically Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. There are multiple categories, and divisions are based on the size of your newsroom staff, however you are allowed to enter in a higher category if you want to take on the big organizations. To enter, click here.


SPJ condemns CWU policy requiring approval of interview questions

I sent the following letter to the president of Central Washington University in response to reports that journalists at The Observer were required to submit interview questions in advance before being allowed to interview university staff and athletes.

President James L. Gaudino,

Central Washington University

Barge Hall 314

Ellensburg, WA 98926

Nov. 12, 2019

President Gaudino,

I am the regional coordinator for the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism association in the United States. One of our core missions is advocating for the rights of all journalists.

I am concerned about reports about how departments at Central Washington University are handling interview requests from journalists with The Observer and Central News Watch. Specifically, I find the practice of asking journalists to submit questions in advance for approval by department staff before an interview is granted to be antithetical to the principles of transparency and accountability in public institutions.

According to several news reports out of Ellensburg, staff members in the Student Wellness Center and the Athletic Department have told journalists at The Observer that interview requests would only be granted if the questions are submitted in advance and approved.

In the case of the Athletic Department, this practice was used to bar journalists from interviewing former athletes about the departure of softball coach Mike Larabee. Why the department would restrict interviews with people who are no longer under its purview is a mystery to me. As a result of this policy, the story on Larabee’s departure lacked the perspective of his current and former players. 

This situation is especially appalling given that this issue was supposedly addressed in April, when it was agreed that the journalists would provide the context of the subject they were working on.

Speaking from my own experience as a professional journalist for more than 30 years, submitting interview questions in advance for approval is unheard of, especially when the person making the request is a public employee. There are several reasons for this.

First, it can be seen as a form of censorship. By requiring “approval” for the questions, it allows the subject to decide the content of the story by screening out information that may not fit with the party line. This was probably best illustrated by Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs Tyler Unsicker’s comment, as reported by The Observer, that the department didn’t want “athletes to say anything that would make them look bad to the community.”

The First Amendment clearly prohibits government officials from restricting speech or the press, and this policy appears to restrict both. Staff and others are barred from speaking openly on subjects of concern to the community, and the news outlets are restricted in the information they can publish.

Second, it restricts the flow of information by precluding follow-up questions or following the facts if they may lead off the path marked by pre-approved questions. As The Observer pointed out in its editorial, someone may say something that sheds new light on the matter and warrant follow-up questions, something that would not be possible if the interview were to be scripted by university officials.

Third, it raises the question about whether the answers being provided are genuine. Was the interview subject coached beforehand and told what answers to give in advance, or are they speaking genuinely from their knowledge and experience on the subject.

Finally, this practice shows a lack of faith in the staff and, in the case of the Athletic Department,  its athletes. These are people who are supposed to be experts in their particular fields, based on education, knowledge and experience. In the case of Larabee’s departure, who could better explain the contributions he made to CWU’s program than the athletes he worked with? It would also be safe to assume that the staff at the Wellness Center would have experience with student health issues and should be able to speak about them, or recommend someone with more expertise. After all, CWU is a university and should be staffed by experts in their particular fields.

I also find disturbing the reported comments by Director of Athletic Communications Will McLaughlin that The Observer journalists “are still just students” and the Athletic Department has the authority to dictate how they go about doing their reporting. We consider The Observer staff to be colleagues and fellow journalists who are entitled to the same rights and privileges as professional journalists. We don’t see a “children’s table” in journalism.

The Observer and Central News Watch staff conduct themselves in accordance with the standards of our profession. The only difference between them and a professional journalist is their degree of experience and paychecks. Do they make mistakes? Of course. But so do professional journalists, but we all strive for accuracy and quickly correct mistakes when they are made.

Such comments, as well as requiring them to jump through hoops shows a disdain for the profession. It is bad enough that the president of the United States publicly disparages journalists. We do not need to have it coming from people who are employed by a public institution of higher education, especially one that is committed to the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

I urge you to make it clear to all departments in the university that requiring questions in advance of granting interview requests is not appropriate, and that the staff of the campus news outlets be treated with  the same professional respect accorded to other news outlets.

If you would like to discuss this with me, you may call me at 509-379-7543 or email me at dmeyers@spj.org

Sincerely,

Donald W. Meyers,

Region 10 Coordinator,

Society of Professional Journalists


CBP harassment of journalists affront to free press principles

If it were an isolated incident, what happened to journalist Ben Watson at Dulles International Airport would be shocking.

But the treatment the Defense One writer and U.S. Army veteran was not an isolated incident, which makes it appalling. There are several cases of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers harassing journalists, searching computers and phones and maintaining files on journalists who cross the border.

Watson related his own incident where he was coming back from a reporting assignment in Denmark. The CBP agent took his passport and when Watson said he was a journalist, the agent then said, “So, you write propaganda, right?” Watson said no, but the agent kept repeating the question and Watson could only leave when he agreed that he wrote propaganda.

It’s the kind of stunt you see with schoolyard bullies, not sworn law-enforcement officers.

But there have been other incidents as well.

In February, a Buzzfeed journalist was questioned about his organization’s coverage of President Donald Trump and Robert Muller’s investigation of the president. CBP officials later apologized.

A freelance journalist was detained by border agents for hours at a Texas airport.

British journalist James Dyer was called part of the “fake news media” by a CBP officer at LAX and asked if he worked at CNN or MSNBC.

“He aggressively told me that journalists are liars and are attacking their democracy,” Dyer said in a tweet about the incident.

And, closer to home for us, Canadian journalist Ed Ou was detained for six hours while flying from Vancouver, B.C., to cover protests in the United States in 2016. Officers took his cellphones when he refused to unlock them, and when he got them back he suspected they were tampered with and data was downloaded from them.

This is behavior you’d expect in a totalitarian dictatorship, not the country that, until recently, was seen as the standard bearer for the rights of a free and independent press.

In Watson’s case, the CBP issued a statement saying that it is investigating the “alleged inappropriate conduct” and that it does not tolerate such behavior by its employees. Which is what it said in Dyer’s case.

It’s fairly obvious that agents are following the lead of Trump, who has admitted to disparaging journalists in an effort to discredit them when they write stories that hold him accountable for his actions.

As an officer in the Society of Professional Journalists, I condemn these actions. It is unlikely that the agency will make any changes on its own, so Congress needs to step in and use its oversight authority to put an end to these abuses.

And, as journalists, we need to stand up and call out these abuses when they do occur, and not allow this administration to intimidate us from seeking truth and reporting it.


Oregon governor must ensure next public records advocate has free rein

When Oregon Gov. Kate Brown took office, she pledged to greatly increase government transparency.

And to that end, she created a public records advocate’s position, someone who would be an independent representative of the people in public records matters. In the time she served, Ginger McCall has helped journalists and Oregonians navigate the state’s public records law and obtain the records they requested.

That work not only promoted transparency, but also saved thousands of public dollars that could have been spent in lawsuits forcing compliance with the law.

But apparently McCall’s work was not popular with Brown’s staff. McCall resigned Sept. 9, citing interference from Brown’s staff. Memos from McCall show how the governor’s staff tried to interfere with her work.

SPJ Oregon Territory Chapter has already condemned the interference in McCall’s work and urged Brown to ensure the next advocate is given the free rein the position requires. And I join with them in calling for Brown to ensure the public records advocate is working on behalf of the public and not trying to protect Brown’s image.


EIJ 2019 wrap-up

We concluded an eventful convention in San Antonio Texas.

First, our region’s own Rebecca Tallent, a force of nature in her own right, was one of two recipients of SPJ’s Wells Key, the highest honor the society bestows. She earned it for her work on SPJ’s journalism Education Committee and her Press4Education program, which puts working journalists (including yours, truly) in classrooms to talk about what we do. Along with Becky, SPJ’s Office Manager, Linda Hall, received a Wells Key for her service to the society, particularly this year when there’s been turmoil in the office. As one who’s known Linda for years, she is SPJ’s Rock of Gibraltar.

We also had a regional meeting that was productive. You can watch it on the SPJ Region 10 Facebook page, where it was initially livestreamed and will remain. Our regional conference will be on April 4-5, tentatively in Seattle. If you have programming ideas, let me or Kaitlin Gillespie, Western Washington Pro president know. We also addressed issues we’ve had with communication between me and chapters, and while uncomfortable it was a good discussion. Accountability is a tenet of our ethics code and also part of my personal philosophy. I’ve made mistakes, and I am doing everything I can to rectify it moving forward. If you need to get hold of me, my email address is dmeyers@spj.org, my cell phone number is 509-379-7543 and I am on Twitter @donaldwmeyers, and my account is set up to receive direct messages from people who don’t follow me. (Yes, that’s a bit dangerous, but the benefits of accessibility far outweigh the risk of spam messages in my case.)

I am looking forward to working with you to make this a great year for Region 10.


Asking questions is not a crime

Asking questions is as natural to journalists as breathing.

But an Oregon legislator who also does double duty as a contracted county economic development director, apparently thinks that’s a crime — literally.

Republican State Rep. Greg Smith recently complained that reporters at the Malheur Enterprise were calling and emailing his employees too much. Smith, who is the director of the Malheur County Economic Development Department, said his employees were being sent email after hours and on weekends to their personal email accounts.

He said the Enterprise had been asked not to contact his employees outside business hours and only through a county email address.

At the time, the Enterprise was investigating why a car wash didn’t get the five-year exemption from property taxes its owners were promised in return for locating in Ontario, Ore. Smith, in his role as the economic development director, is responsible for negotiating property tax exemptions for businesses.

But instead of just griping about the coverage like any upset public figure usually does, Smith apparently went running to the county attorney claiming the Enterprise was illegally harassing him and his staff.

County Counsel Stephanie Williams said she asked the county sheriff to look into the allegation, but fortunately Sheriff Brian Wolfe said there was no crime to investigate, but only after suggesting the paper look at the statute on telephonic harassment.

While this may be considered a good ending, it’s still disturbing that government officials even entertained the idea of using criminal prosecution to silence journalists who held them accountable. That’s a stunt you’d expect to see in a totalitarian state, rather than in Oregon, where presumably the First Amendment applies in full force.

To his credit, Malheur Enterprise Editor Les Zaitz said he was not going to be bullied.

“This is an effort to get accurate information,” Zaitz told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “The public is entitled to that information — not only entitled to that information, it deserves it.”

But such tactics could easily have a chilling effect on journalists, who may debate whether pursuing a story is worth possibly going to jail.

But we are in an age where we need fearless watchdogs more than ever. With a president who has taken to discrediting any journalists who speaks truth to him, it’s not too much of a stretch to see local officials become more emboldened at trying to squelch the press.

What was telling was Smith saying he wanted “a cheerleader” to support his efforts. That’s not our job. We’re watchdogs, and our job is to hold the powerful accountable.

Reaching out to public officials is not harassment, as Smith claims. It’s due diligence, making sure the official gets to have his or her say. Sometimes that means reaching out to home phone numbers, personal emails, cellphones, even knocking on their front door.

As members of the Fourth Estate, we should follow Zaitz’s example and not let thin-skinned politicians and bureaucrats keep us from doing our job at holding government accountable.


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