Archive for the ‘unethics’ Category


Why does SPJ act like the enemy?

“We as members spend much time fighting for access,” one frustrated SPJer wrote me and my fellow SPJ leaders last week. “We should lead by example.”

The past couple years, SPJ’s example has been the Trump administration.

When our members want to know what SPJ is doing and spending, at first we ignore them. If they don’t go away, we get passive-aggressive: We apologize but say we’re busy doing important stuff.

If that doesn’t stand them down, we cite flimsy legal reasons no one – not even us – really believes. Finally, we promise to be more transparent next time. Except the next time, it starts all over again.

This year alone, we’ve held meetings without posting agendas. We’ve had “technical issues” on conference calls that cut off open forums. We’ve made late-night announcements of embarrassing news. We’ve gone into “executive session” to discuss things privately that should’ve been done publicly.

We’ve lied about how convention sponsorships work, we’ve blamed staff for chapters not getting money they’re owed, and we’ve refused to release public information until the law absolutely requires us to.

Basically, we’ve mastered the tactics of shady government leaders we lament in our own coverage.

Angry at the irony

“Tell members the full story. Own the actions,” SPJer Forrest Gossett wrote the board on Friday. “I would be willing to venture that most members will appreciate full disclosure.”

If I could put Forrest’s words on a T-shirt – and I’ve designed two SPJ shirts so far – I’d silk-screen one for each of my fellow board members.

Alas, attire won’t matter. Only this will: a transparency pledge that each candidate signs, with the promise to resign if they don’t live up to its terms.

Click that link to read my draft of such a pledge. If you’re interested in editing it or writing one of your own, email me. Let’s do this thing.

If you’re marveling at the irony that a journalism organization run by journalists wants to keep secrets from their dues-paying journalist-members, here’s how that happened…

The psychology of SPJ secrecy

Over the past few years, my fellow regional director Andy Schotz and I have spent much blood and treasure crusading for SPJ transparency. To name-check other directors who have fought this same losing battle: Sue Kopen-Katcef, Lauren Bartlett, and Mike Reilley.

Other directors have supported openness, if not on the front lines, then near it: Mike Savino, Kelly Kissel, and Joe Radske. And in fact, few others have opposed transparency, even if they haven’t exactly rushed to the ramparts.

So you might be thinking, “Hell, that’s most of the board. Why isn’t SPJ already more transparent?”

Blame the officers. That’s the president, president-elect, and treasurer.

Over the past couple years, we’ve had presidents who presided over very bad news – plummeting membership and deficit spending. They want to burnish their reputations, not tarnish them. So spin became more crucial than candor.

The president-elects don’t argue with the PR-tense presidents because they are, and I’m quoting one of them here, “waiting my turn.” They fret about setting a trend: What if, when my time comes, my president-elect argues with me?

Next up are the treasurers. They’re planning to run for president-elect, so they do nothing and say little. Why alienate voters by taking a stand? Best to speak up on mundane issues and appear active and engaged.

Since these three officers set the agenda and guide the board, it takes an open revolt to let the sunshine in. And there’s a price to be paid for leading an uprising. When those three officers don’t like you, they can really mess you up.

The limits of the system

Since SPJ’s bottom line isn’t getting better any time soon – because those officers never consider bold initiatives, lest they fail and jeopardize their eventual Wells Key – nothing will change. Unless SPJ voters change it.

That means voting for candidates who do more than just say they’ll be transparent. It means making them sign a pledge and sticking to it. If they break that pledge, we ensure they never get elected to another SPJ post.

Here’s my draft of a transparency pledge. I’d love to hear your edits and ideas.

Ethics, smithics

Gideon Grudo and Tyler Krome

There are ethics, and there are smithics.

Kevin Smith sits on the board of SPJ’s foundation, called Sigma Delta Chi. Yesterday, he endorsed a candidate for SPJ office.

Smith posted on the Excellence in Journalism convention app…

Rebecca Baker deserves your vote for secretary-treasurer. As past president, board member I know her commitment and visions and I support her leadership of the Society.

Should a director of SPJ’s foundation publicly endorse a candidate? When I said this was “bad form,” Smith replied, “I have every right to endorse my friend for office.”

Not really. Not according to Smith’s boss, SDX chairman Robert Leger.

Leger says in April 2012, a committee “discussed a policy covering SDX Foundation board members’ role during SPJ officer and director elections.” The results? Leger told me…

The committee concluded a policy wasn’t needed and offered the following guidance statement: “Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board members are cautioned against actively participating in SPJ election campaigns.” The minutes indicate the board approved the guideline.

Those minutes don’t indicate if Smith voted against it, but he’s definitely violating it now. Sure, it’s not an ironclad rule. But it’s at least unethical to brazenly flout this guideline.

Thing is, Smith is the previous chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, and he’s a journalism professor. It must be easier to teach ethics than to practice them.

So what happens now? Probably nothing. Smith knows the best defense is to be offensive. When I confronted him on the EIJ app, he publicly accused me of doing the same with Baker’s opponent, Jason Parsley, who hails from my chapter…

Since South Florida endorsed him and your fingerprints are all over that chapter I can’t imagine you weren’t involved in that process…So let’s dispense with the conflicts of interest lecture. You’ve always been good at double standards and bad form.

SPJ Florida’s president and past president corrected Smith – because I had nothing to do with that endorsement. As an SPJ national board member, I’ve been following our own guideline: “Current national SPJ board members should remain neutral in all elections.”

I even interviewed the candidates and wrote equally nice things about Baker and Parsley. (I was less kind to other candidates.)

But I guess I’m just not very good at smithics.

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.

Libeling SPJ

This blog post might be libelous. My last couple were, according to SPJ’s president.

I’ve been writing about the secretive way SPJ’s leaders are revising the organization’s Code of Ethics. After my last post, SPJ president Dave Cuillier called me and said I was “libeling SPJ.”

Before I recount that strange conversation, let me commit more crimes…

SPJ continues to unethically update its Code of Ethics.

On Saturday, the Ethics Code “working group” met in Ohio to keep discussing their revisions. After I blasted SPJ’s top leaders for not telling the board of directors (or anyone) it was spending up to $11,000 on this gathering, Cuillier promised it would be open and live-streamed.

It was. But SPJ waited till less than 24 hours before the meeting to tell anyone how to tune in. And it never told its membership anything: Wednesday afternoon, in its weekly newsletter to its 7,500 members, SPJ didn’t mention the meeting at all.

Thursday night, I emailed my fellow SPJ national board members and asked if the meeting was still on for Saturday – because no one had told us anything for weeks.

The answer from Cuillier was yes. After I complained it hadn’t been publicized at all, the meeting was announced on an interior page of SPJ’s website late Friday morning. A single tweet went out Friday afternoon.

(Privately, Cuillier emailed me, “The meeting has been advertised for some time – months – through various modes.” When I asked for links to those “modes,” he sent me this. Scroll down to the third-to-last entry.)

The meeting itself lived down to its promotion.

So much for “transparency.”

First, the meeting agenda didn’t include any names, and the live stream camera wasn’t placed to include everyone. So you couldn’t tell who was talking, and you didn’t know who they were.

They never introduced themselves at the beginning of the meeting, so I availed myself of this: “You are invited to participate in the process before, during and after the meeting in the comments section below.”

After the first 10 minutes, I posted…

Who’s talking right now? Who’s in the room? Any chance you’re going to introduce yourselves so the viewers who learned about this live stream yesterday can figure out what’s going on?

After 20 more minutes, I posted again…

Is anyone reading your comments? Can you please introduce yourselves? Who’s talking?

I tried again after 90 minutes. No reply. Instead, they watched a slideshow that couldn’t be read from the camera view, and they read handouts that weren’t shared online.

As this group of an unknown number started rewriting the Code on a computer hooked up to a projector, a commenter asked, “Is it possible to reposition the camera to focus on what’s being written? At this point, the language is more important than seeing the people at the table.”

After 2 1/2 hours, the camera finally moved in front of the screen. After 5 1/2 hours, they introduced themselves. Telling you this will probably earn me another weird phone call from SPJ’s president.

“You’re libeling SPJ, Michael.”

On June 24, SPJ president Dave Cuillier called me, and we spoke for an hour and 15 minutes. He was mad about the blog post I wrote the day before, and the one I wrote the week before that. Both accused SPJ of revising its Code of Ethics in less-than-transparent ways.

When Cuillier uttered the accusation above, I asked him for specifics.

“Well, Michael, you wrote: SPJ is revising its Code of Ethics in a most unethical way. That’s libel, in my opinion.”

I was stunned.

“Really, Dave? Are you threatening me or something?”

He sighed.

“You know, Michael, you can twist this any way you want, which I know you’re gonna do.”

“How do I twist You’re libeling SPJ, Dave? Do I need to get a lawyer here?”

Another audible sigh.

“I didn’t say that at all. But you just keep writing all this wrong stuff…”

His voice trailed off. I told him I wouldn’t write more “stuff” if nothing else stupid happened.

“I get it, Michael. We all get what you’re saying. I’ve told you that next month’s meeting will be very, very open. You just need to stop now.”

“OK, Dave. I’m done. If everything goes well from here on out, I’ll shut up for a while.”

That didn’t last long. Anyone know a good lawyer?

3 “huh?” reasons

Joe Skeel Dave Cuillier Kevin Smith

Last Wednesday, I accused SPJ of being unethical. Last weekend, SPJ responded. Sort of.

SPJ’s Executive Committee met Saturday in Washington, DC. These senior SPJ leaders briefly discussed the revisions being made to the Code of Ethics, which hasn’t been updated since the mid-’90s.

For the first time, SPJ president Dave Cuillier explained how he decided to spend $11,000 on a meeting of the Ethics Committee in Columbus, Ohio, without telling the board of directors (or anyone else) about it.

His explanation raised more questions than it answered…

We had a grant application for the SDX Foundation for $6,000 to have this in-person meeting. They denied it for various reasons, the main one being: They didn’t feel that was something SDX money should be used for, and if SPJ thinks it’s important, SPJ should fund it itself.

Sigma Delta Chi is SPJ’s philanthropic, nonprofit foundation. Why did Cuillier go there for $6,000 when he later raided SPJ coffers for $11,000? How come he didn’t tell the SPJ board he was going to SDX? How come he didn’t send them an email afterward?

I wasn’t in DC to ask these questions. I was listening to a live stream (which I agitated for a few years ago and, to SPJ’s credit, is now a regular feature). I heard Cuillier wrap up his story like this…

So we just had to move forward, with SPJ carrying the ball. Michael raised the question, “What’s the process on that? Who gets to decide whether money is spent on this or not?” I think the technical answer is, well, it’s the prerogative of the executive director and the president.

So Reason No. 1 boils down to…

The SDX board of directors said no. We didn’t have a Plan B, we didn’t have time to ask the SPJ board, and besides, they might’ve also said no. So we just did it on our own.

But that’s not as illogical as the second reason.

Joe Skeel Dave Cuillier Kevin Smith

Reason No. 2: You should know what you don’t know.

Executive Committee member Bill McCloskey followed up…

I disagree the board didn’t have an opportunity to talk about this. The board reviewed the budget, the board asked no questions about the budget. If the board wanted to read any of those 30 pages of budget and ask, “What is this line item? Is there enough money here if we decide to have an onsite meeting?” – they could have asked that question. No one asked that question. What’s the problem?

SPJ board member Andy Schotz, who was sitting in the meeting as an observer, asked executive director Joe Skeel: How much money was allocated in the budget for this meeting?

Skeel replied, “There’s no specific line item for a meeting of the Ethics Committee to do the revision.”

So Reason No. 2 is just plain crazy…

You approved the budget – and you never asked about something that doesn’t exist in its 30 pages. Thus, you have no right to complain.

But that’s not as surreal as the third reason.

Joe Skeel Dave Cuillier Kevin Smith

Reason No. 3: Ethics are like air-conditioners.

Skeel added this: “There’s also no budget line item to hire a part-time person to make membership calls.”

Cuillier elaborated…

Things come up during the year unexpectedly. The air-conditioning unit [at headquarters] breaks down, we hire a student to make membership calls, things like this the board doesn’t approve, and Joe takes care of it. So technically, there’s been nothing wrong. Nothing illegal or inappropriate.

So Reason No. 3 is the lawerly answer…

A meeting that costs $11,000 you didn’t know about for a group of people you didn’t approve (the president picked them) is no different than an AC unit that burns out or a kid calling lapsed members to urge them to renew.

This isn’t the first time SPJ leaders have given lame answers that would make journalists shake their head if their sources said the same things with straight faces.

In my three terms on the board, this has happened with three different groups of leaders. So it’s not personal, it’s institutional. How to fix it? Come back next Monday.


SPJ is revising its Code of Ethics in a most unethical way.

I’m a three-term member of SPJ’s national board of directors. I recently learned this by accident…

Sometime in the next few weeks (I don’t know when), SPJ will pay up to $11,000 for a group of people (I don’t know how many) to spend several days (I don’t know the number) in Columbus, Ohio.

Those people (who the board of directors didn’t approve) will revise SPJ’s vaunted Code of Ethics. They’ll work off a first draft (written in secret by unknown authors) and submit their shiny new Code at SPJ’s annual convention in September – where 200 SPJers in attendance (out of 8,000 members) will endorse it in a single meeting at the end of the last day of the convention.

And then the SPJ Code of Ethics will officially change.

As a board member who knew none of this – and never voted on any of it – I complained. (It’s what I do best.)

The reply from SPJ’s senior leaders? Sorry, pal, that’s the way we’ve always done things.

Which is true. SPJ’s rules are literally 100 years old. They predate not only the Internet but also commercial radio.

(SPJ was founded in 1909, before refrigerators and zippers and crossword puzzles and women being allowed to vote.)

So I want to change SPJ’s rules before we change its Code of Ethics. Not surprisingly, SPJ leaders have told me I’m being “melodramatic.” You decide…

SPJ doesn’t want to hear it.

I asked SPJ’s president and his inner circle why the board of directors didn’t get to vote on – and wasn’t even informed of – the $11,000 meeting of the so-called Ethics Committee “working group” we didn’t know about.

The answer: It was a “management decision.”

So who decided that? Apparently, I did.

Without a hint of doubt or irony, and totally on the record, a senior SPJ leader told me I couldn’t complain – because I had approved the organization’s entire fiscal year budget…

“By voting to approve the budget, you lost the right to say the board did not have a say.”

…which, by the way, didn’t contain a line item for this $11,000 meeting. SPJ’s executive director admitted to me, “This wasn’t budgeted.”

But SPJ wasn’t budging. This is happening, SPJ top leaders tell me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

So here’s what I’m doing about it…

I’m going to lead a probably futile attempt to convince SPJ’s delegates to oppose whatever this “working group” comes up with in Columbus.

Then I’ll ask those delegates to do two things…

1. Start over again, and do it openly

This $11,000 meeting is just the latest episode in a ridiculously secretive process I graphically illustrated in April. Coincidentally, ONA and SPJ are both working on ethics codes. But they’re going in opposite directions.

2. Vote to let everyone else vote

SPJ’s arcane rules only allow delegates to vote on changes to the Code of Ethics. These delegates are appointed according to century-old bylaws and represent a fraction of SPJ’s membership. Before the Internet and even fax machines, this was the only way to efficiently conduct business. In this century, all SPJ members should vote on a new code.

Times have changed – that’s why SPJ says it wants to update its code. But how silly is it to modernize a Code of Ethics using 100-year-old rules?

Email me if you want to join my quest or complain about it.



A barber needs a license to cut your hair. A plumber needs a license to clean your pipes.

Why doesn’t a journalist need a license to cover your news?

Two weeks ago, 50 college journalists pondered that question. And nearly all agreed…

1. The government shouldn’t license journalists.
2. Journalists should license journalists.

These students from two similar-sounding schools – Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and Florida International University (FIU) – insisted journalists need to be certified and regulated. They just weren’t sure how.

They were attending a one-day conference called “Listen Learn Connect,” hosted by FIU’s SPJ chapter. I was invited to speak on a panel about journalism ethics. But we spent the entire hour on licensing.

All but one student wanted the SPJ Code of Ethics to be the law of the land.

Most were surprised that SPJ’s code is an unenforceable suggestion instead of a punishable regulation. But their astonishment makes sense: They’re the first generation to grow up entirely with standardized testing.

Their schooling so far has consisted of being spoon-fed the “right answers,” usually multiple choice.

So their answers were predictably short when one of my fellow panelists, FIU journalism professor Fred Blevens, asked, “Besides obeying the Code, what else would you require of someone to be certified as a journalist?”

“Graduating from journalism school,” one student replied confidently.

“Using [Microsoft] Word,” another joked.

The answers were longer and less clear when another panelist, FIU professor Juliet Pinto, asked, “How would you enforce this certification?”

“Well, we could start, like, a group to do that,” one student said. “Like a guild of journalists to decide.”

And if the guild found a fellow journalist to be unethical and unworthy?

That was easy, replied a student named Dennis: “The punishment for violating the Code in those cases? You lose your job and you have to find a job somewhere else.”

Some students nodded in agreement. (Or maybe they were just nodding. I hate panel discussions.)

Only one student disputed her peers. Lulu Ramadan is editor of the FAU student newspaper.

“I don’t think it would work,” she said. “Certification doesn’t make you a journalist, experience makes you a journalist.”

Crickets and tumbleweeds.

So I made these students an offer they can’t excuse.

“If you want to license journalists, let’s do that,” I said. “Let’s start right here at FIU, with your own student media. You create a guild to decide who’s in and who’s out – and I’ll pay you.”

I offered $500 from my meager SPJ account to fund their efforts. “I’ll pay for your food and drink and whatever else you need to get your guild going.”

But it’s been 10 days  since my offer, and I haven’t heard a peep from them. So I’m extending the offer nationwide…

If any school anywhere in the country wants to experiment with licensing journalists on their own campus – as a little-pink-spoon-at-Baskin-Robbins taste of what it might be like in the real world – I’ll write you a check for $500.

All you gotta do is let me Skype into your meetings and document your debates and decisions. And you must share the results and repercussions.

But it won’t happen. As I told FIU’s TV station, which covered the conference and interviewed me afterward…

I’m offering hundreds of dollars if you guys will start a guild – or whatever the hell that thing was earlier – where you’re actually going to decide what a journalist is on this campus.

I will buy your food and your frosty adult beverages. I will rent a room for you. I will put couches in it and a disco ball. Whatever you want – and it’ll never happen.

No one will do it. If students did everything I offered to pay for, I’d be broke. If I was back in college, this would be really cool – let’s start a panel to decide who’s a journalist on this campus. And if it fails, it’ll fail big and fun.

…but the student TV reporter holding the microphone to my mouth looked slightly confused, the way a dog looks at a YouTube video of another dog. So I imagine the quote above won’t make it to YouTube when she files her report.

If you want to fail big and fun and get paid for it, email me at

But you won’t.


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