How do you turn journalists into publicists? Put them in charge of something.
Everything they believe in will eventually evaporate.
I’ve learned that lesson often over the years. I’ve learned it anew since posting a “supercut of crazy” from the June board meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists. SPJ is the nation’s largest journalism organization, but the journalists who run it often behave like the sources they hate.
In their first meeting since that June shitshow, the SPJ board held a virtual “town hall” for its members. Nearly 50 people joined via phone and computer – several who complained SPJ is hiding information from them.
“Many of us have been rather shocked that there has not been more transparency in some of the board decisions,” said Katherine Jones, a Texas freelancer. “We expect our elected officials to be transparent and open in conducting the public’s business, and we hold them accountable. But if our own leaders don’t think that applies to them, that really smacks of hypocrisy.”
As SPJ’s senior board member, I listened while we were properly scolded. Here’s one recent example that “smacks of hypocrisy”…
The question: Last month, two members sought details about SPJ hiring a new executive director. (The last one quit less than a year into the job.)
The first lie: After emailing SPJ and its president, they got this reply:
Unfortunately, we cannot release this data because it would reveal the salary and benefits of our recent executive director – HR information that we cannot make public.
One of those members pointed out that SPJ is a tax-exempt organization, and “the salary of our executive director is reportable on IRS Form 990.”
The stall: The two members didn’t hear back for a week. Then they got this response: “Her compensation will be legally reported on the Form 990 in the next fiscal year.” In other words, we won’t tell you till the law compels us.
The second lie: SPJ also added, “Our recent executive director’s compensation was comparable to our previous executive director’s compensation.” Except, as you’ll learn in a moment, that’s not true.
The backlash: Like all journalists should know, the coverup is worse than the crime. Now more than a dozen angry SPJers joined the conversation. Meanwhile, SPJ’s board of directors privately debated what to do about the irony of journalists stonewalling journalists.
The clampdown: SPJ president Alex Tarquinio insisted nothing be said until she consulted SPJ’s attorney. The rest of the board was angry but said nothing publicly. Which means, unlike good journalists, we didn’t speak truth to power.
The breakthrough: Irked, I emailed everyone the numbers and added…
SPJ erred when we told you, “Our recent executive director’s compensation was comparable to our previous executive director’s compensation.” Alison Bethel McKenzie was paid 12 percent more than Joe Skeel. I’ve confirmed these numbers with Alison. … We both marveled that SPJ refuses to share what will become public in mere months.
The aftermath: A couple SPJers asked me if I’d get in trouble for defying SPJ’s leaders. “Maybe,” I replied. “I guess I could get ousted for going straight to the source to confirm public information, then sharing it with those who wanted to know. In other words, journalists would punish a journalist for doing journalism.”
I wasn’t punished at all, of course. But I was once again branded as SPJ’s biggest asshole. Hell, it happened again during that virtual town hall…
SPJ’s diversity chair Rebecca Aguilar twice declared she’s furious about the “supercut of crazy” I posted. Which is fine. I have no problem with her (or anyone’s) opinion. But she kept repeating, “That video needs to come down,” and her tactics were the same ones we mock when our busted sources espouse them.
Tactic Number 1: Claim selective editing. Aguilar said…
You know, I looked at the video – the three-hour meeting condensed into nine minutes – and I remembered my background in television. That’s 28 years and lots of awards. I was always told never to manipulate video to make someone look bad. That is a no-no in television news, and I saw that in this video.
I didn’t say anything during the town hall, but I did grin and shake my head when Aguilar said this. I mean, the video is nine minutes of sheer madness, not 90 seconds.
Tactic Number 2: Threaten legal action. “Believe me, if you would have done it to me, I would’ve sued your ass, and that’s the truth.” Except I edited a video SPJ posted on its own website. Not sure what law I’m breaking, and Aguilar didn’t say. Maybe she’ll sue my ass for writing this?
Tactic Number 3: Lament egotism. “He should take down that video. Koretzky, move your ego to the side. It’s bigger than you.” It is indeed. That’s actually why I posted the video in the first place.
Tactic Number 4: Allege bigotry. Along with posting the video, I called for the SPJ president’s impeachment because she was acting crazy. That incensed Aguilar…
I also found it offensive that Alex was called many derogatory names that are always used on a woman. … Why is Koretzky allowed to be such a sexist, calling the president “crazy” and “insane”? I was shocked that no woman, despite how you feel about our current president, did not tell Koretzky, “Hey take down this video!”
I don’t even know what to say about this one.
Tactic Number 5: Cry collateral damage…
That video needs to come down because it looks like a bunch of mean girls. It is hurting the organization. … It is crucial right now that Koretzky takes down that video if you guys want a quality executive director. … So please take down that video, because you will not be able to get a great director once they see that.
This is my favorite tactic of them all. Every enemy of a free press eventually declares: Telling the truth causes more harm than good.
Aguilar isn’t the only SPJ leader to think this way. Others have said so, both publicly and privately over the years. In that same town hall, SPJ Foundation VP Hagit Limor chastised not only me but all noisy SPJ members…
It’s not just been one blog post or just one video. It’s been a multitude of insults over the last months and even year, and that is the problem. It’s an accumulation of inventory that has tarnished the reputation of the organization. While we look for an executive director, I just want to look forward. So stop it. Just please, people, let’s move forward.
I disrespectfully disagree.
Like any decent journalist, I believe temporary discomfort from the truth is better than chronic suffering from a whitewash. If SPJ hides its problems, it may indeed find “a quality executive director.” But it won’t keep them.
Better to be honest and recruit someone with the talent and temperament to heal exactly what ails you. Transparency isn’t the problem, it’s the solution.
Royal pain in the ass
I’ve just bored you with two recent SPJ examples, but this happens anytime journalists go from covering an organization to running one.
I’m also a member of the College Media Association. CMA represents 600 advisers of college newspapers, yearbooks, and radio stations and TV stations. I’ve been a member since 1999, and because I’m a geek, I’ve sat in the back of board meetings held at CMA’s annual conventions.
In November 2014, CMA’s president announced CMA members would be banned from those board meetings.
“Attendance at CMA Board of Directors meetings is limited to active board members and invited guests,” the president emailed the membership. “Remember that this is a non-profit organization, not a public body of elected officials.”
And she was right. No law says CMA must practice what their leaders teach. No law requires SPJ to be as transparent as its members want. Of course, clamping down on journalists is a great way to piss them off, so the only real surprise is how surprised CMA and SPJ leaders are when their members revolt.
When I led a protest that compelled the CMA board to reopen their meetings, a former CMA leader told me, “By God, they hate you now more than ever.”
“You questioned their authority.”
But does that sound like a bunch of journalists?
“No. It sounds like a board of directors. You need to wise up.”
And in fact, CMA has wised up. In the years since this ridiculous incident, younger leaders have risen up and opened up. They’re much more tolerant of controversy. They still don’t like it, but it’s more of an allergy than a coronary.
SPJ is 10 times larger than CMA, thus 10 times slower to change. Other journalism organizations fall somewhere between these two poles, but in all cases, it’s just the truth…
No one in charge of anything wants journalism to happen to them. Especially journalists.