NEFAC President Calls for Newsrooms to Support Each Other When Fighting for Transparency, Defending First Amendment
NEFAC President Karen Bordeleau made the following remarks on Nov. 14, 2018, at the annual Massachusetts Broadcasters Association Sound Bites Awards.
Thank you for that generous introduction. I am honored to be speaking to my esteemed broadcast journalism colleagues. It’s a bit unfortunate that my address follows your cocktail hour. But I’ll try not to ruin your buzz.
I know I’m preaching to the choir when I say our profession — and ultimately the First Amendment – is under vicious, unrelenting assault.
In the last two years alone, we have been declared “the enemy of the people” numerous times by a sitting U.S. president.
We have had our investigative stories decried as “hoaxes.” We have been told bald-faced lies by the powerful and — when we have challenged those lies — we have had a finger wagged in our faces and accused of reporting “fake news.”
We have heard a U.S. president praise a U.S. congressman for body slamming a reporter. We have seen multiple examples of reporters from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, the Guardian, the Des Moines Register and others being thrown out of press conferences for doing their jobs — for reporting factually.
We have witnessed the revocation of press credentials of a nationally respected American broadcast journalist for asking tough, appropriate questions on immigration to the nation’s top elected official.
And then we watched aghast as other state elected officials followed suit – the most recent example last week in Rhode Island where the House Speaker, who is arguably the most powerful elected official in that state, announced he has a new policy. He said, and I quote: “News media outlets that treat me fairly and are objective, I’m going to converse with more.”
I think we can all imagine what his definition of “objective” is. You see my point.
There is a new arrogance on the part of some elected officials who no longer think they must answer for their actions, or their policies – policies that obviously affect their constituents. That they get to choose which questions to respond to or if they will respond at all.
We see many examples of this arrogance here at home in Massachusetts where all three branches of government exercise a blatant disregard for open records and transparency – which, we can agree, amounts to nothing more than a condescension for the people they serve.
Here are a few examples:
The Boston Guardian recently reported that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration is thwarting the Massachusetts Public Records Law. It reported that this year alone, 83 public records appeals have been submitted against the City of Boston and Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin. Over 40 percent of the 83 appeals filed against the city this year concerned the failure to respond to the public records requests – with the Boston Police Department by far the city’s worst violator of the Public Records Law. Nearly half of the 83 appeals filed against the city this year involved the Boston police.
And then there is the case of The Massachusetts State Police refusing to release the recording of a 9-1-1 call placed in connection with a quadruple homicide in West Brookfield earlier this year, despite being ordered to do so by the Secretary of State’s office. The state ordered the department to turn over the record to MassLive after determining that State Police had not met the agency’s burden of explaining why the call should remain out of public view. Following an appeal process that stretched on for five months, the State Police still did not turn over the record in the time allotted by public records law. Can you imagine? Law enforcement officials breaking the law?
When CommonWealth magazine recently tested the willingness of Massachusetts officials to voluntarily release certain public records, Gov. Charlie Baker refused to provide the information. And eight of Beacon Hill’s most powerful lawmakers, including the House Speaker and the Senate President, also refused to provide any of the requested records. The speaker’s office gave no reason. The Senate counsel said the records were not subject to the Public Records Law. And when she was reminded that the Senate president could still voluntarily release the documents, the counsel said quote: “That’s true, but we will not be providing them.” How’s that for arrogance?
Justin Silverman, the executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, recently submitted comments to the state’s Special Legislative Commission on Public Records. He said: “It’s an embarrassment that Massachusetts — whose own constitution explicitly requires government accountability to the people — is the only state in the country where the public lacks a right to records in the Governor’s Office, the judiciary and the legislature. Accountability simply cannot exist where there is secrecy.”
So, my fellow journalists, this has got to stop. And this is where you come in.
Transparency is our right in this state, and in this nation. There must be a presumption of openness, and journalists must be prepared to fight for it. We must fight for this with every ounce of strength we have. We must challenge every single government official who tries to shut us down. We cannot afford to take no for an answer. Journalism cannot afford to take no for an answer.
It is not lost on me that there have been huge contractions in our industry. When I was the executive editor of The Providence Journal, I experienced several layoffs and many budget cuts – including to our legal budget. Believe me, I understand the precariousness of our position.
So how do we do this – how do we gain access to the public’s business — especially when our legal budgets have been cut and some of our companies prefer to stay out of the fray to avoid costly lawsuits?
The short answer is that we don’t have to do it alone. There is power in unity.
Bear with me a moment — I want to refer again to the video of the White House press conference during which Jim Acosta and CNN were berated by the president. It is tough to watch. It angered me to see this demeaning treatment of a journalist – but a bright light shone when NBC News reporter Peter Alexander came to Acosta’s defense.
And a brighter light still when CNN filed a lawsuit against the White House and many news organizations came to its defense with supportive briefs, including its longtime rival, Fox News, as well as NBC News, The Associated Press, Bloomberg, Gannett, The New York Times, Politico, USA Today, The Washington Post and others.
My friends, this is a watershed moment in journalism history. This moment when the First Amendment is given center stage over competition.
And it’s not just on the national level – the Hartford Courant and other Connecticut news organizations recently came to the defense of a reporter and photographer from the Stamford Advocate – after the Republican gubernatorial candidate barred them from an event on election night, citing objections to their coverage. The Hartford Courant immediately came to that paper’s defense and said it would pull its own staff from the event if the Advocate journalists were not admitted. It worked.
So the lesson here is that we must continue to band together and support each other. Wouldn’t it be something if when one of your newsrooms gets shut out of a meeting or denied public records that all the other newsrooms come to your defense by reporting on it? Or when one of your news organizations sues for public records, you all affix your names to a supporting amicus brief?
In these difficult days — when journalists are taking one bash after another – rivalries must sometimes take a backseat to journalism’s ultimate purpose which is to be a fierce, teeth-bared watchdog of the government. To be a fierce, teeth-bared protector of Democracy.
And there is another way to gain access to the public’s business.
The New England First Amendment Coalition can help you. Some of our board members are First Amendment attorneys and are willing to come to your defense when elected officials wave you off. We are willing – and eager – to help you by filing amicus briefs on your behalf. We are willing to take a stand for you. Our contact information is on nefac.org. Just pick up the phone or send an email.
I’d like to share this powerful statement written in 1971 by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in New York Times Co. v. United States, the Pentagon Papers case:
“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
No truer words.
I’ll leave you with this: Only a free and robust press can ensure that the government acts for the public good. And only a free and robust press can ensure that Democracy survives.
You are that free press. You must – you will — prevail.