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Inaugural Speech by SPJ President Robert Leger

Delivered Sept. 14, 2002 in Fort Worth, Texas, at the SPJ National Convention

Thank you to Kay Pirtle. I wish the world of journalism had more passionate, can-do volunteers like her and rest of the Fort Worth chapter's convention team. Their hard work and hospitality have been tremendous. I cannot salute them enough.

I also owe thanks to by publisher, Tom Bookstaver, and executive editor, David Ledford, for their support enabling me to be here.

Tonight is the highlight of my career. It is humbling to be entrusted by you with the leadership of the world's oldest, largest and most important journalism group. I am pleased to share this moment with my family -- my father and mother, Richard and Mary Lu Leger, my children, Andrew and Joshua, and my wife, Cindy, without whose support I could not do this.

SPJ is like a family in many ways. The national convention is our family reunion. We catch up with each other, sharing stories about our personal lives -- but especially, our professional lives. A family is joined by blood; we are united by interest. We are members of SPJ because we see journalism not as a job but as a calling. We belong to SPJ because we believe in defending the First Amendment -- the core mission that drives everything our Society does.

Like a family, we rally to help each other -- even those distant cousins who haven't yet paid their dues.

The past year has challenged us. Next year looks no easier.

The attacks of Sept. 11, as tragic as they were, inspired great heroism, courage and selflessness. They enkindled great journalism, as we have been reminded this weekend.

But the war on terror also unleashed opportunists, who troll the halls of state capitols and Congress seeking to use a war for freedom as an excuse to limit freedom. These charlatans took ideas that were bad before Sept. 11. They wrapped them in the flag and found lawmakers eager to support anything labeled "homeland security."

Industry tried to create a black hole in the federal freedom of information act that would hide its most grievous misdeeds. State legislatures closed records that had been open for years. The New Jersey governor thumbed his nose at lawmakers. When they expanded open records, he threatened to shut them back down by executive order.

In too much of government, there is a fear of information. The Federal Aviation Administration asked the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to deep six a profile of one official. Reporters trying to cover wildfires in Arizona were kept miles away from the blaze. Some were ejected from the area simply for shooting video of a town's empty streets. New medical privacy rules were created to safeguard patients' medical records. But they go so far it will be virtually impossible to measure how well hospitals respond to emergencies.

Every journalist, every freedom-loving citizen of this country should be shaking in our boots. These are dangerous, dangerous actions our local, state and federal governments are imposing. Let us not mistake the trampling of American values and freedoms as something that will make us more secure.

SPJ is fighting back -- and winning a few.

We understand implicitly a point a writer to my newspaper made this week. "There is no nation, no terrorist network, no power on Earth with the might to destroy American ideals," he wrote, "except one. Only ... the United States itself has the power to destroy what she represents to herself and the world."

The battle to keep government open and accountable will be a long one. Those who would trade liberty for false promises of security won't give up easily. They'll be back with new arguments, new rationales for letting government operate in the dark.

SPJ will be waiting for them. We will continue to be the beacon on the hill for freedom of information, thanks in large part to our Washington law firm, Baker & Hostetler, and our FOI chairs, Ian Marquand and Charles Davis. With our D.C. chapter, we will continue to build our Washington presence to fight the major FOI battles there.

Freedom of Information is not under attack just on the banks of the Potomac, though. Reporters in every state and community face their own conflicts. To help them, Ian and his committee produced the Open Doors booklet with funding from the SDX Foundation. It's a great resource for challenging those who would close records or meetings. We're putting it in the hands of reporters and editors across the nation.

We're also partnering with IRE to offer hands-on instruction through a series of workshops that began this weekend and will stretch through next year. The more confident reporters are in seeking public records, the stronger our republic will be.

But it's not just bureaucrats we must contend with. A year ago, journalists' standings in public opinion surveys were as high as the president's. We knew they would drop. They have -- and how.

A majority of respondents in a poll, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said we, in the press, get in the way of society solving its problems. They said we, in the press, don't care about the people we report on. They said we, in the press, are not willing to admit our errors. The Freedom Forum's annual State of the First Amendment survey found -- for the first time -- a plurality of people who said the First Amendment goes too far. Frightening.

But there is good news in both surveys -- news we should capitalize on.

The Pew survey found an increase in the number of people who say press scrutiny of political leaders keeps them honest. In the Freedom Forum poll, a plurality of 40 percent said they have too little access to information about the government’s war on terrorism. Americans may not like a pushy press, but they want the information a pushy press brings them.

This is our opportunity. Most of our battles for freedom of information are fought in the halls of government — and they will continue to be. But to make it easier to win there, we need to make our case in the living rooms of America.

We here tonight can be part of that. I urge those who write columns and editorials to use your voices to explain the importance of open records in keeping government accountable. It's not just journalists who use the law -- it's your readers, listeners and viewers. Reporters and editors can tell the objective story of how FOI keeps government in the sunshine.

Still, we need to go beyond that. SPJ launched the Project Watchdog ad campaign a decade ago to promote the role of a free press in a free society. Today, we need a new campaign.

This one will promote the importance to a free society of keeping public records freely available. SPJ will push to making this happen, but we can't do it alone. We will explore partnerships with the editors', publishers' and broadcasters' associations to produce and distribute public service ads. These ads will explain why it's important to Americans that public records remain open.

With Project Watchdog, we asked: If the press didn't tell you, who would? Our new appeal should ask: If government can hide it from you, who will keep government honest?

We can improve our case by building public trust through the practice and encouragement of ethical journalism. Our ethics committee is planning an ethics week in April. It will highlight the importance of seeking truth, independently, while avoiding harm and being accountable. Under the leadership of Gary Hill, Casey Bukro and Fred Brown, the committee will speak even more forcefully on behalf of ethical journalism in the year ahead.

Not everything SPJ does will be directed outward. We have almost 500 more members tonight than we had last year at this time. A year from now, I hope Mac McKerral can report an even larger membership increase.

There is strength in numbers,. With every member we add a voice. With every new member, we become louder. With every new member, we become more effective.

Howard Dubin's membership campaign helped boost numbers. Thanks, Howard. But we also had to give people a reason to join. I'm encouraged that we gained members as our advocacy of FOI became more visible.

But I can't overlook what I believe to be our strongest asset in growing membership: Active chapters.

I wouldn't have gotten involved in SPJ in the first place if not for my local chapter. Someone else would be giving this speech tonight -- and I'd be at home watching TV. Yes, I believe chapters are important. In the next year I promise to do more to nurture them.

For starters, I've asked former President Kyle Niederpruem to serve as chapter doctor. She'll work closely with Julie Grimes in providing advice and counsel to chapters. That should tell you how important I think chapters are -- you'll have two Wells Key winners working with them. I've also asked Kyle and Julie to find a way to share good ideas among chapters. If a chapter comes up with a creative idea, we need to share that with all of you.

Leading a chapter also will be easier under new pro chapter requirements the board approved this week. Finally, we're acknowledging that one size doesn't fit every chapter. The new guidelines include incentives for active chapters -- and mechanisms to help revitalize chapters that barely have a pulse.

Our mission committees will do their part to help chapters through programming. Already, Project Watchdog has a program-in-a-box available for chapters. Sally Lehrman's diversity committee is working on one, and the Diversity Sourcebook can be a program in itself. The FOI Open Doors book can be the foundation of a program. So can the Covering Campus Crime booklet, for student chapters. I'd like to hear your thoughts on what kinds of just-add-water programs would help you the most.

We've asked the Scripps-Howard Foundation to renew funding for the Ted Scripps Leadership retreat. Strong chapters derive from strong leaders, and the retreat has produced a lot of them. I'm optimistic it will resume, and that would be good news for SPJ -- and for journalism.

We need strong journalists and strong leaders. This weekend has made that clear. At this convention, in the shadow of the anniversary of Sept. 11, we have examined how the war on terrorism has affected journalism, freedom of information and the First Amendment. Tough challenges lie ahead. But this is why SPJ exists; this is our calling. This is our responsibility. I am honored to have this chance to lead the charge. With your help, we will succeed. We have work to do. Let's get to it.

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