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Home > Publications > Quill > From White House to battlefields, SPJ member covered it all


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Friday, September 1, 2006
From White House to battlefields, SPJ member covered it all

By Bridget Thoreson

The journalist’s job sometimes can seem like a battle. But one SPJ member actually put her journalism experience to use as a member of the military.

In the early 1970s, Lt. Col. J.P. LadyHawk Freeman-Clark was a cub reporter for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C., having gone there looking for a job after college graduation.

“My job, the journalists’ job, is that they enable the reader or the listener to make an informed decision,” Freeman-Clark said. “That is what I found so exciting about journalism.”

After covering West Point under the Nixon administration, she was offered a choice to be promoted or assigned to a different beat.

“Being young, curious and full of vim and vigor or whatever, I said ‘Hey, send me somewhere more interesting,’ ” Freeman-Clark said.

So she was sent to cover Senate subcommittee hearings addressing the environmental impact of using Agent Orange in Southeast Asia. It was here that she made a name for herself. The night before, the president’s office had released information from the secret Paris peace talks, saying that President Nixon had offered a one-for-one exchange: the military withdrawal of the U.S. in exchange for releasing U.S. prisoners of war. The offer had been refused by the Hanoi, Vietnam, delegation. During the hearings, Sen. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., said that if the president were serious about negotiating peace in Vietnam, he would have offered this one-for-one exchange, apparently unaware that the offer had already been made.

“I didn’t know the protocol, and sometimes when you’re young you get away with things,” Freeman-Clark said. So she stuck up her hand, was recognized, and then asked the question that got her banned from the Senate floor for life: “‘Are you saying that the president has lied?’ ”

After that, she was asked to cover the White House, if anyone would take her. And Gaylord Shaw, an AP reporter who covered the White House from 1971 to 1975, did.

“Boy, those were hectic times,” Shaw said. “There was a lot going on in ’73.”

Shaw saw that the workload was putting a strain on her, although she was doing well.

“During that time, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time and getting the bylines,” she said.

Shaw told her if she didn’t leave journalism, she would have a breakdown.

“So I said, ‘OK, I need to find something else to indulge my penchant for journalism,’” Freeman-Clark said. She joined the U.S. Air Force. Her SPJ membership “fell through the cracks” when she went overseas — she lived and worked in 37 countries during her career.

Her jobs were numerous: radar operator, EMT, backseater in airplanes, deep-sea diver for wreckage recovery, to name a few. But her experience as a reporter was useful to her time and again during her military career, which spanned four campaigns and two wars, from Vietnam to Desert Storm.

“Journalism really, really, really gave me a boost and enabled me to be viable,” she said.

Katie Fitzpatrick, producer, director, editor and writer for the Nickelodeon Creative Resources Video Group and an SPJ member, said Freeman-Clark’s journalism background helped prepare her for the military. Fitzpatrick has been friends with Freeman-Clark since she was in high school.

“As a journalist you have to be objective, but you also have to be observant,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think it taught her to think on her feet faster than she already had. … Plus, if you’ve got all those obstacles … you have to have alternate ways of finding (information).

“It’s just all that stuff of how to play hopscotch around the red tape … was helped by the journalism.”

Early on, Freeman-Clark reviewed and wrote training manuals for radar interceptor operators.

“To write in a manner that was not verbose but communicated effectively, my journalism training was invaluable,” she said.

Later on, she did reports on aircraft accident investigations, which were read by senior commanders, including the two top-ranking United States Air Force generals in Europe.

“Reporting everything that occurred in a manner that’s comprehensive but it doesn’t take the reader three years to reach the final paragraph, and it allows the readers, which in this case are the senior commanders, to make an informed decision — that’s what journalism is all about,” she said.

As deputy base commander at NATO Base Kolsas at the headquarters of the Allied Forces in Norway, her background came in handy again as she had contact with the international media.

“My background with the media gave me respect for people on the other side of the quill or the microphone,” Freeman-Clark said.

She was medically retired from service in 1995. Freeman-Clark has multiple sclerosis, a condition which has recently deteriorated and curtailed her post-military work. She was the senior legislative advocate for the Mountain States region of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. She also taught everything from sixth grade to postgraduate, as a “super sub,” in a variety of subjects.

“Unfortunately my disability has taken me to the point where I can no longer do that,” she said. “I have gone down to the point where I am no longer physically able to commute.”

“She just seems to know about everything,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think her knowledge or her education is striking; education as far as books and also as far as real-life application.”

Fitzpatrick said another striking characteristic of Freeman-Clark is her sheer will to live life to its fullest.

“She’s just fun, great, energetic, happy and always the ‘incurable optimist’ as she puts it,” Fitzpatrick said. “She won’t back down from a challenge, whether it’s government or a large corporation or individual companies or even a contractor for her house, and she prevails in one piece and somehow sets things right. … I admire her for that, because that takes a lot of time and courage and dedication.”

Freeman-Clark rejoined SPJ about 10 years ago. She said it’s been very beneficial to her, and the organization is “invaluable.”

“I think SPJ’s value is manifold, one of which is it enables all of us, past, present and future. … It gives us a forum, it allows us to look in a mirror,” she said. “It also facilitates many forums.”

Although she has traveled a long way from the cub reporter at the White House, Freeman-Clark still reveres the journalist’s mission.

“The journalist, whoever he or she happens to be, if they’re sincere, then they strive to strike the very, very delicate balance between getting all the information to the people but conveying it in a nonprejudicial way,” she said. “To me, literally, it’s a sacred trust.”

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