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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Editors Silent on Dems Forcing Closed-Door Senate Debate on Confidential Sources, Iraq War Run-up

Closing meetings of public bodies is and should be anathema to journalists and all others who care about the public's right to know and the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press, but journalists hardly uttered a peep when Democrats closed the Senate this week.

Normally, journalists are out front in battles to force politicians and bureaucrats at the local and state levels to open their meetings to reporters and members of the public.

So why the silence among the nation's journalists about Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, forcing the U.S. Senate to kick reporters and spectators out, bolt the doors and dim the lights for a closed session Nov. 1 on prosecuting government officials for leaking information about war and peace to ... journalists?

Actually, silence is not quite accurate. Two professional journalist organizations took strong stands condemning the closed session. The first of those stands came within hours after the Senate's closed session when Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, condemned Senate Democrats, observing that "the best way to combat secrecy and obfuscation is not more secrecy."

You can read Dalglish's full statement here.

After reading the RCFP statement, I asked the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters & Editors and Radio and Television News Directors Association if they planned to say anything about the closed session.

Christine Tatum, President-Elect of SPJ, left no doubt about her reaction, condemning Senate Democrats and saying:

"Senate Democrats clearly want more information about government intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. The best way to get it is by conducting inquiry and debate out in the open so that the public can make observations, demand answers and hold government officials accountable for their actions. It makes no sense to criticize or combat secrecy with more secrecy."

Tatum, who covers business for The Denver Post, added that the issue would be discussed today in SPJ's email newsletter: "We're essentially going to make clear that we believe the hearing shouldn't have been closed, and we'll remind our members that SPJ welcomes their help in its fight for open public meetings and the freedom of information."

Barbara Cochran, President of RTNDA, said she "certainly agrees the public's business should be conducted in public," but noted that her organization had not issued a statement about the closed session. She speculated that the issue "may come up" during a telephone meeting of RTNDA leadership later this week.

The responses from RCFP and SPJ contrasted vividly with those from ASNE and IRE (Full disclosure here: I am a long-time IRE member, unabashedly encourage fellow journalists to join IRE and use a textbook written by Brant Houston, IRE's Executive Director, in The Heritage Foundation's Database 101/201 Computer-Assisted Research and Reporting Boot Camps at the National Press Club).

An email to ASNE president Rick Rodriguez, Executive Editor of The Sacramento Bee generated an "out-of-office" reply that said he would not be reviewing his email while travelling.

So I emailed the other four ASNE officers, including: David Zeeck, ASNE Vice President and Executive Editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington; Gilbert Bailon, ASNE Secretary and Executive Editor of The Dallas Morning News; Charlotte Hall, ASNE Treasurer and Editor of the Orlando Sentinel, and Marty Kaiser, ASNE Treasurer-Designate and Editor of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

As of this posting, none of Rodriguez' colleagues in the ASNE's top leadership has responded to my request for a comment on the closed Senate session.

As for IRE, I posted an invitation for comment on the IRE list serv that is read religiously by hundreds of newsroom CARR practicioners and other journalists. Only two responses were received, but both are well worth mentioning.

First, Lex Alexander, a CARR journalist and blogger extraordinaire at The Greensboro (NC) News & Record, offered this observation:

"In general, closed meetings are a bad idea, and I've fought them as hard as anyone. But with specific respect to Tuesday's closed Senate meeting, there were so many issues at play - substantive, political, procedural - that I doubt there's any one-size-fits-all argument, pro OR con, to be found."

Andee Engleman, former Executive Director of the Nevada Press Association, was anything but non-committal, noting:

"Most people think Democrats are the open government party. I've found it's a mixed bunch and tends to be an individual belief. But Sen. Reid always told me he supported open government. This is not the first time he's closed a meeting to the press.
"I understand closing the meeting was legal. That doesn't make it right. The Senate should never be closed to the public."

As for the reporting of the closed session, a Lexis-Nexis search for quotes from the RCFP statement turned up nothing, while a search using the term "closed session" found only 86 entries for the period 11/1-4.

The main wire report that did show up in the search was written by AP's Liz Sidoti but she quoted no professional journalist organization official or public meetings law expert, and included no coverage on the propriety of the closed session.

So what do we make of all this?

With the notable and commendable exceptions of Dalglish and Tatum, the cream of American journalism's leadership apparently has no qualms about Senate Democrats forcing the first closed session of the Senate since 1999 to hijack for intensely partisan political purposes the extremely controversial prosecution of a senior government official for talking to journalists.

It is easy to imagine the double standard that would have instantly been evident in the newsrooms if a Republican had forced the Senate closing. The outraged protests would have exploded from the front pages, the end of the free press would be predicted at every turn and we would hear incessant demands for the resignation of the offending GOP senators.

Shouldn't journalists be the first to decry the prosecution of an official for leaking something to the media? Shouldn't journalists be the first to condemn closing the Senate to debate that prosecution and what it may or may not reveal about the reasons for America's Iraq War? Are there any issues more demanding of a public debate than war and peace?

I ask these questions as one who has spent the better part of his career as a journalist. And I continue to marvel that so many mainstream journalists can't understand why their giving Democrats a free pass on an issue so crucial to good reporting so damages journalism's credibility.

UPDATE: 11/4/05

ASNE's Rodriguez responded to my second email requesting comment (sent earlier today) with the following statement:

"ASNE opposes any efforts to close meetings of government bodies that should be open to public scrutiny. This case seemed to be a political maneuver, using a rather obscure Senate rule couched in national security language to close a meeting. We strongly would oppose these sorts of maneuvers.
"In fact, ASNE would strongly favor having the whole debate about the run-up to the Iraq war in the open, not behind closed doors."

Still no responses from the other ASNE officers, however.