One unethical weekend

Is SPJ even ethical?

That’s not a click-bait question. Over the weekend, SPJ approved a new Code of Ethics. SPJ leaders decided its vaunted  code – last updated in 1996 – needed an update because technology has changed the essence of journalism.

I’ve written about this crazy process before (and before and before and before), but this isn’t a rerun. This is all strange new shit.

Here are five ridiculous moves SPJ leaders made in just one weekend…

1. Selective tech

The code may have needed a tech update, but on Saturday, SPJ leaders clung to a century-old system that featured less than 125 insiders making the decision for all its 7,500 members.

Why? Because SPJ clings to an arcane “delegate” system that’s akin to the Electoral College. Except for one weird thing.

Delegates come only from SPJ’s 60 pro and 160 student chapters and vote only in person at SPJ’s annual convention. So even if you were a delegate but couldn’t afford to come to Nashville, you couldn’t vote.

Even worse, 43 percent of SPJ’s members aren’t in chapters. They’re just regular ol’ members who either do their own thing or (in most cases) don’t live near a chapter. They get no vote and no representation – even if they show up at the convention. They aren’t allowed to even speak in front of the delegates who do vote.

Of course, the technology exists to allow everyone to vote online. SPJ uses it for electing the board of directors. I’m a national board member, and I was elected through online voting last year.

At the delegates’ meeting Saturday afternoon, I urged the “old white men” who run the show (that’s what they jokingly called themselves) to let all members vote on big decisions. They hemmed and hawed and said that was too hard.

2. Shut up and vote

As delegates filtered into the exhibit hall, they were handed a brand-new draft of the code. It had two dozen changes from the one they were emailed in the days before the convention – which was intended to give them time to review it.

The old white men quickly and sometimes confusingly reviewed those changes on a projector. Some delegates proposed more changes. But at one point, the president said, “We only have 15 more minutes.”

The delegates in front of me said they didn’t know there was a time limit. I said I didn’t, either.

The wife of one of the old white guys made a motion to end all debate. It was seconded by a woman who sat on the code revision panel that was hand-picked by the president – without board approval.

The president, Dave Cuillier, let another woman speak after that – she’s a member of SPJ’s foundation board – but tried to cut me off by saying the question had been called two speakers ago, and that “the people” had spoken. I had to stand firm and raise my voice before I was allowed to say…

If delegates comprising 2 percent of SPJ’s membership and not representing 43 percent of SPJ’s membership vote for a new Code of Ethics without putting it back to the members, I believe that is unethical.

You said you wanted to change this Code of Ethics because you said technology has changed so much, it has materially affected the way we do our jobs. In 1996, when I was a member of this society, the delegate system WAS the only way to pass anything. The technology did not exist to let more people speak. This system, at the time, was high tech. If we’re going to say this is the system we have, that’s the excuse of anyone who tries to deny representation.

…and then Cuillier cut off debate. Several new delegates – I’d guess half of all the delegates are new each year, with no clue what the hell is going on – told me later they wanted to speak in support. But it was too late.

 3. Your opinion is stupid

The day before, Cuillier and his panel hosted a “town hall” so delegates could “ask questions, comment, and make suggestions.” Except when they tried, Cuillier was so dismissive that one woman chastised him from the back of the room: “You’re being disrespectful.”

Cuillier, to his credit, later issued a public apology for, and I quote, “being a douchebag.”

Kevin Smith, the ethics chair, wasn’t so contrite. He shot down each suggestion with, “We worked really hard on this! We spent hours on it!” He interrupted delegates so often that one woman got a laugh from her neighbors when she muttered, “This is a real testosterone-fest.”

4. Rank and revisions

Fearing he had lost the room and his shot at glory (more on that later), Smith agreed afterward to make some changes. But that wasn’t publicized, so few delegates knew about it.

Those delegates also didn’t know – because no SPJ leader told them via email, social media, or the convention app – that the Northern California chapter also wanted changes. It got ’em because one chapter member is an SPJ foundation board member and chatted up Smith in the lobby.

Smith and some of his group met with leaders from that chapter and made more changes (which the board of directors also didn’t know and wasn’t told about). Other chapters who didn’t have insiders as members didn’t get the same opportunity.

That’s why the delegates got a new draft as the filed into the meeting room, with only minutes to peruse it. Executive director Joe Skeel joked it was literally hot off the press – and it was. What he handed me was still warm from the copy machine.

5. We’re awesome

After the vote, the insiders let out a whoop and high-fived. Some delegates also applauded. But others just looked confused. This long, out-of-context meeting was finally over, and the social functions were soon starting.

Three hours later, Smith was bestowed with SPJ’s highest honor, called a Wells Memorial Key. From the podium, Cuillier cited one reason for the award: getting the new ethics code passed. Of course, the Wells Key was decided months ago – and of course, not by the board of directors but a small group of SPJ insiders.

Some SPJers wondered if the fix was in.

Cuiller and Smith were lame ducks last weekend. Their terms ended hours after the code passed. Was all of this strong-arming and bum-rushing because Smith needed to get his Key before he stepped down?

(It may seem overwrought to some, but Wells Key winners often weep from the podium when they deliver their acceptance speeches at a banquet. I once thought that was odd, but many of the winners are dedicated journalists. While I don’t quite understand the emotions myself, some of these winners are awesome guys – and sadly, most are guys – who I truly admire. So if this is what floats their boat, I’m glad for the rising tide.)

The question on the lips of some was: Will Cuillier get his Wells Key next? He was president when the code passed, and he was one of the small group who bestowed the honor on Smith.

So overall, SPJ leaders are quite pleased with themselves, even as some rank and file are confused and/or concerned and/or bored. But from bad things, sometimes good things come. Already, work is underway on an alternate SPJ Code of Ethics. Learn more in this space, coming soon.

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


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