SEJ President’s Report: New Leadership, Old Business and Future Challenges
By Bobby Magill
SEJ conference season is upon us and this year in Flint, Mich., that means I get to personally introduce you to SEJ’s new executive director, Meaghan Parker.
Meaghan’s long history with SEJ, her vision for the organization and her reputation for insight and excellence in her roles at the Wilson Center made her the clear choice to lead SEJ.
Additionally, she was on the board representing associate members during the challenges of the past year, and is best equipped to apply the lessons all of us have learned over the last two years to her role as executive director.
Executive director transitions are never easy for any organization, but with our collective experience gleaned from the previous ED transition in 2017, I’m confident that this one will set SEJ on an incredibly exciting course. My hope is that course will see SEJ diversify, seek promising new funding sources and think hard about how we’re serving and educating student journalists, freelancers and SEJ’s international members.
As we bring Meaghan on board, I’d especially like to thank the members of the SEJ Executive Director Search Committee: SEJ members Meera Subramanian and Naomi Starkman; former SEJ Presidents Tim Wheeler and Carolyn Whetzel; and SEJ Board members Lyndsey Gilpin, Scott Dodd and Susan Moran.
They spent months sifting through resumes, interviewing candidates and debating merits, and ultimately narrowing a field of more than 200 candidates down to just two, whom the board interviewed in Las Vegas in June.
I’d also like to thank the two people who have really saved the day for SEJ: Our co-interim executive directors, Chris Bruggers and Beth Parke, who have been with SEJ for the long haul and served SEJ at perhaps its greatest time of need. SEJ owes its stability and ability to keep the lights on over the last two years to Chris and Beth.
If you see Chris or Beth in Flint or online, please take a moment to thank them for all the work they’ve done.
As Meaghan begins work for SEJ in September, I’ll be the only board president in SEJ’s 28-year history to have worked with four executive directors: Beth Parke; Melisa Klem, who left us last year; Chris Bruggers; and Meaghan Parker. (Previous presidents and board members worked with Beth and Chris for years.) I’ve learned a great deal from each of them and I believe SEJ is a much stronger organization for having had them lead us.
Vote ‘yes’ on SEJ voting rights
Before I ruminate on the virtues of a free press below, I’d like to draw your attention to an email SEJ members should soon receive about an SEJ ballot measure regarding a change to SEJ’s articles of incorporation.
This is a big deal, and I urge you to vote “yes” on your ballot.
In a nutshell, here’s what’s going on: The board and SEJ members voted in 2004 to change the SEJ bylaws to grant academic and associate members a vote and a voting seat on the board. (Read all about that in former SEJ President Dan Fagin’s 2004 SEJournal column here.)
But there’s one thing they didn’t do in 2004: They didn’t change SEJ’s articles of incorporation, which forbids academic and associate SEJ members from voting. The board didn’t know it was necessary, and they weren’t advised as such by an attorney.
SEJ is incorporated in the District of Columbia, and the articles are SEJ’s official incorporation documents. The articles have legal primacy over the bylaws, and if there’s a conflict, whatever the articles say, goes.
That means that, although SEJ has been acting according to the bylaws and the will of the membership since 2004, we’ve been doing so with an until recently undiscovered conflict between the bylaws and the articles of incorporation.
If a majority of SEJ active members votes “yes,”
academic and associate SEJ members retain
their right to vote and their seats on the board.
SEJ’s attorney discovered the conflict a few months ago, and now that we know about it, the conflict needs to be fixed. If we don’t fix it and academic and associate members keep voting and retain their voting board seats, future board decisions could be legally questioned and SEJ’s insurance may not cover our actions.
The email you’ll receive will explain the details and, hopefully, answer most of your questions. Technically, we’re asking active members to vote to allow the bylaws to fully govern SEJ’s membership categories by striking a sentence in the articles that creates the conflict.
But here’s the take-home message:
If a majority of SEJ active members votes “yes,” nothing changes. The status quo wins the day. Academic and associate SEJ members retain their right to vote and their seats on the board. It will reaffirm the 2004 vote granting these members representation and a voice.
If a majority of SEJ Active members votes “no,” academic and associate members — two-thirds of SEJ’s membership — will needlessly and senselessly lose their board representation and right to vote in the organization.
What are SEJ’s past leaders saying about this?
SEJ’s founding president Jim Detjen said, “I fully support the proposed changes. As SEJ’s founding president, I helped draft the original SEJ articles of incorporation and original bylaws. I also supported the amended bylaws in 2004. It is important to vote ‘yes’ on these changes to continue to give voting rights and board representation to our hundreds of academic and associate members.”
Dan Fagin, who was board president in 2004 when the bylaws were changed, said, “These proposed changes in SEJ's articles of incorporation have my full support. In fact, they are essential to preserving the status quo in the group we all care so much about. Voting rights of associate and academic members will not change, and neither will the strict membership rules that are so important to SEJ's identity as an association of journalists.”
Tim Wheeler, who served as board president from 2006-2008, said, “This change in SEJ's articles of incorporation is needed to ensure that all of SEJ's members still have a say in the organization. I was on SEJ's board of directors in 2004 when it initiated the bylaws change to grant associate and academic members limited voting rights. I don't recall anyone pointing out then that the articles of incorporation don't allow that. I don't know anyone now who wants to turn back the clock and take those rights away. So, I believe it makes eminent sense to clean up this contradiction in SEJ's governing documents, and to remove any potential for legal challenge to board or membership votes.”
So, please vote yes on the ballot question.
One final thing about this: SEJ’s attorney discovered the conflict while researching how to change the bylaws for a proposed student membership category. The board voted on Aug. 5 to table the student member category proposal so that we can focus on resolving the articles conflict, give SEJ members more of an opportunity to help craft a student member category and focus on successfully bringing Meaghan Parker on board as SEJ’s new executive director.
We’d like to hear your ideas about how SEJ can do more to attract and serve students. We’re creating a task force to focus on this, and we’ll be hosting a member discussion about student outreach during the SEJ membership meeting at our annual conference in October in Flint, Mich.
Please join us!
In face of Trump, an indispensible press
If you’re a journalist like me, you’re an “enemy” of the American people, a purveyor of “fake” news and a member of the “opposition party.”
So, for example, our SEJ awards winners this year have done the work of “enemies”:
The team at ProPublica that won SEJ’s Kevin Carmody Award for outstanding investigative reporting in the large-market category exposed the U.S. military as the biggest polluters in the United States.
The team at the Bergen (N.J.) Record that won the same award for the small-market category exposed DuPont’s knowledge that its cancer-causing solvents could poison New Jersey residents, prompting immediate action from Gov. Phil Murphy.
Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler at the Sacramento (Calif.) Bee won an award for covering the Oroville Dam’s fractured spillway crisis, which forced the evacuation of 200,000 residents. They revealed that 93 dams across California were vulnerable.
Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis at the Washington Post won an award for their coverage of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration, exposing the agency’s corruption under former Administrator Scott Pruitt and how he ignored the EPA’s scientists and pulled its agents off of the pursuit of environmental crimes.
This, and the reporting done at the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and other news outlets, tells readers what the government is up to, shines light on government malfeasance, corruption, inaction and negligence, while also informing the public about threats to their health, safety and livelihoods.
It holds the powerful accountable and, when most effective, empowers the people to improve their lives and their government and find solutions to existential crises such as climate change.
So says the president of the United States. Over and over. Ad nauseam. Which means it’s the official position of the U.S. government that journalists doing their jobs are tantamount to terrorists and despots.
We have to constantly remind people
that we're the check on power,
the vital information source and
the platform for voices to be heard.
I realize that by criticizing the White House’s abuses of the press in this way that I’m allowing the president to frame and control the narrative and failing to define the free press in terms of its virtues.
But it’s important to drive home the extraordinary point that the president of the United States — not some fringe candidate for a school board or congressional seat — thinks that the hard work of reporting the news, is the “disgusting” work of enemies of the people.
It’s nuts. It’s surreal. It’s dangerous. And it’s catching on as it is increasingly perceived as truth, according to an August Ipsos poll. Among its rather mixed findings:
- Twenty nine percent of all respondents agreed that the press is the enemy of the American people.
- Twenty six percent of all respondents said the president should have the authority to close down news outlets "engaged in bad behavior."
- Forty three percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Democrats surveyed agreed with this.
- Fifty seven percent agreed reporters are necessary to keep the Trump administration honest.
- Forty seven percent agreed that reporters should be shielded from prosecution by the Trump administration.
Granted it’s just one poll, and there’s clearly a silver lining in it, but it’s disturbing that even a substantial fraction of the American people might believe a news organization should be shut down for reporting unpopular facts.
The logical extension of the president’s attacks seems to be that the First Amendment itself — which also empowers the people to propagate propaganda, declare news nonsense, challenge power, redress grievances, exercise religious freedoms, demand and win civil rights, express gay pride and waive Confederate flags — is also “fake” and “disgusting,” exercised by “enemies.”
The risk is extraordinary: The public is free in part because of a free press. Less verifiable information about their government and their environment will be available to inform the public. Those of us trying to report the facts will be more likely to be exposed to threats of violence against us just for doing our jobs.
The antidote to this is complex, but it's critically important that we respond to President Donald Trump’s claims that reporters are "enemies" with more than just "no we're not."
Each of us needs to be a crusader for the First Amendment and for the value of journalism. We need to ensure that the stories of the people — Flint residents, Nevada ranchers, residents of my old neighborhoods in the Bronx and South Carolina and everyone in between — are told.
If the people hear their voices being called "fake" and "disgusting" by the powerful, then maybe the tide will turn.
We can't assume that the value of what we do is self-evident to our audiences and everyone else. We have to constantly remind people that we're the check on power, the vital information source and the platform for voices to be heard that is fundamental to the stability of their livelihoods.
This is a complex problem caught up in deep ideological currents, and the president gets away with this in part because others have connected the dots for people differently than we would.
Yet, as an industry, even as the economics of news remains unstable and uncertain, we have to do more to prove ourselves indispensable to the public and relentlessly counter the abuses and anti-press rhetoric coming from the White House.
We have to both show and tell people that what we do is vital to their daily lives.
We can't be afraid to push back on these abuses, both individually and as news organizations, just because it might be seen as too political or taking sides.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 31. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.