Where's the Crime?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   December/January 2005

Where's the Crime?   

By Unknown
     


The article "Lobbying Juggernaut" in the October/November issue presents a distorted and misleading account of the First Amendment Leadership Award presented last March to Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., by the board of trustees of the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation. The author raises questions about why an organization of journalists would present an award to elected officials but never supplies the answer that was readily available. Although it was never mentioned in the article, the two senators were honored specifically and solely for the significant work they have done in the United States Senate to protect the First Amendment rights of reporters, surely something that all journalists would applaud.

The two senators have consistently supported the rights of journalists to access public proceedings and public records and have spoken out when government agencies have tried to put undue pressure on journalists. For the past seven years, both senators have sponsored the Sunshine in the Court Act, a bill that would allow federal judges to open their courtrooms to radio and television coverage. Sen. Leahy has been a major defender of the Freedom of Information Act and was a key opponent of efforts to exempt the Department of Homeland Security from FOIA provisions. Senator Grassley has frequently spoken out against the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its overzealous pursuit of information from reporters.

All of this information was conveyed to the author and to the audience at RTNDF's First Amendment Dinner. None of it made it into the article. Based on conversations with two of the representatives of other journalism groups whom the author quoted, he apparently did not share this information with those from whom he sought reaction.

The author did mention that RTNDF does no lobbying. RTNDF is an educational foundation that provides training, research and scholarship assistance for electronic journalists and students. Why this event was included in the article remains a mystery to me and, if your readers had been given all the facts, would probably puzzle them as well.

Barbara Cochran
President
Radio and Television News
Directors Foundation and
Radio-Television News
Directors Association
Washington, D.C.

The author, Charles Layton, responds:

Barbara Cochran is mistaken when she says my article never mentioned the purpose for which her organization honored Sens. Leahy and Grassley. Far from being misleading, the article stated at the outset that this was "a First Amendment Leadership Award," which is given each year to someone "who has demonstrated a lifetime dedication to freedom of the press." Four paragraphs later I referred to "the senators' contributions to the public's right to know." Three paragraphs after that I noted Leahy's reference to the importance of "government transparency." And in the next paragraph I quoted Linda Douglass of ABC as saying that the two senators had long been praised for their defense of the First Amendment.

Cochran also mistakenly infers that the journalistic ethics sources I quoted didn't understand that Leahy and Grassley were being honored for supporting freedom of information. My notes reflect that I made this point clear. For instance, according to my notes, IRE's Brant Houston told me that he himself was aware of Leahy's good works on behalf of press freedom, but this did not alter his opinion. Also, according to my notes, I specifically asked Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute whether the fact that it was a First Amendment award made an ethical difference. He replied that journalists should do stories about First Amendment issues rather than handing out awards to the politicians they cover.

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