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SPJ president commends news organizations’ decision to expose secret banking surveillance activities

For Immediate Release:

Christine Tatum, President-Elect, (303) 881-8702,

Beth King, Communications Manager, (317) 927-8000, ext. 211,

INDIANAPOLIS – American news organizations made the right call last weekend when they published stories about a secret international banking-surveillance program spearheaded by the Bush administration, said David Carlson, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“These are the toughest of the tough decisions news organizations must make,” Carlson said today. “Sometimes editors and broadcasters have to make the call between the government’s wishes and the rights of American citizens.

“These calls,” Carlson added, “are not to be made lightly. But the right of citizens to know what their government is doing is not to be taken lightly either, especially when the government’s actions raise questions about whether those actions are legal or even constitutional.”

“That’s why our forefathers saw free media as an essential ingredient in self government and as a check against abuse of power,” Carlson said.

President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Press Secretary Tony Snow harshly criticized news coverage about the covert program, which examined hundreds of thousands of private banking records from around the world. Bush and Cheney have called the papers’ actions disgraceful, and other federal officials have called for investigations of the news coverage and even prosecution of the editors.

This criticism is “a tired, shoot-the-messenger strategy that deflects attention from disturbing questions about the administration’s possible violations of the United States Constitution and American privacy laws,” said Christine Tatum, SPJ president-elect.

The first news organizations to publish information about the secret monitoring program – The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post – have made clear they did not make their decisions lightly. Carlson and Tatum applauded them for moving carefully, as recommended in the SPJ Code of Ethics, which tells journalists to “seek truth and report it” but also says to “minimize harm.”

Gary Hill, a Minneapolis broadcaster and co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee, explained.

“Although we need to consider the potential harm caused by the reporting, we need to consider also the potential harm of sitting on information that the public should have when making decisions about its government,” Hill said. “Time and again, good, ethical journalists will decide to go with disclosure rather than secrecy even when the stakes are as high as they may be in this case.”

The nation’s founders championed an independent and free press that would hold the government accountable for its actions no matter the cost or harshness of public criticism. Carlson and Tatum said they agreed with New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller when he wrote June 25 that the framers “rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.”

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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