Watchdogs in action

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The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California, will honor the following James Madison Freedom of Information Award winners during a March 20 banquet. Details on their work and the dinner are available at www.spjnorcal.org.

 

VOICE FOR PRISONERS

Throughout his 29-year journalism career, Peter Sussman, a retired San Francisco Chronicle editor, advocated for greater media access to prisoners and fought to uphold the rights of inmate journalists. In the 1980s, federal prison officials cracked down on inmate Dannie “Red Hog” Martin for writing to Sussman to share what life was like behind bars.

The retaliation spurred an epic battle over free speech within prison walls, and Sussman responded by publishing Martin’s regular writings about prison life, and later co-authoring a book with him titled Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog.

In the mid-’90s, Sussman fought state prison officials’ restrictions on media interviews with prisoners. He also helped write and sponsor statewide legislation to overturn limits restricting media access to prisons. Sussman will receive the Norwin S. Yoffie Award for Career Achievement.

 

GUIDING ASPIRING JOURNALISTS

Beverly Kees Educator Award winner Rob Gunnison is a former instructor and administrator at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he arrived after spending 15 years covering government and politics in Sacramento for the San Francisco Chronicle.

As a longtime instructor of a course called “Reporting and Writing the News,” Gunnison has continued to educate hungry young journalists on how to seek public records and carry out investigative reporting projects.

 

EXPOSING ATROCITIES

Peter Buxton will be honored with the FOI Whistleblower/Source Award. In 1972, Buxton played a key role in alerting the press to the ongoing operation of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, where African American sharecroppers were intentionally exposed to the disease, without treatment or their knowledge, so researchers could study its progression.

By the time the story was related to the press, 28 men had died of syphilis, and 100 others had died of related complications. That leak helped spur Congressional hearings on the practice beginning in 1973, ultimately spurring a complete overhaul of federal regulations. A class-action lawsuit was filed, resulting in a $10 million settlement.

 

EXPOSING BART’S SCHEME

Reporter Tom Vacar of KTVU pushed for records determining whether replacement drivers that BART was training to help break last year’s labor strike were qualified to safely operate the trains, eventually finding that they had been simply rubber-stamped by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Those findings proved gravely significant on Oct. 21 when two workers on the tracks were killed by a BART train operated at the time by an uncertified trainee, an accident still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

 

STANDING FOR SUNSHINE

California Sen. Leland Yee is once again being honored by SPJ Norcal for his work on sunshine issues, including last year criticizing Gov. Jerry Brown and other fellow Democrats who had sought to weaken the California Public Records Act, instead seeking to strengthen the ability of the courts to enforce the law.

 

FIGHTING THE CITY

Freelance journalist Richard Knee’s Distinguished Service Award caps a 12-year fight for open government in a city eager to stash its skeletons securely in closets.

Knee is a longtime member of the San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, created in 1994 to safeguard the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, and he has fought to maintain its power and relevance.

Over the years, many city agencies have fought against the task force, from the City Attorney’s Office to a group of four supervisors who claimed the task force was wasting public money, a struggle that is still ongoing.

 

BADGES AND ACCOUNTABILITY

The Lake County News and its co-founders Elizabeth Larson and John Jensen will received a News Media Award for a protracted legal battle with local law enforcement for a simple journalistic right: interview access.

The scrappy local paper detailed allegations that Lake County Sheriff Frank Rivero and his deputies wrongfully detained suspects on trumped up charges, made threats, conducted warrantless home searches, and violated suspects’ civil rights.

Rivero’s office responded by blacklisting the paper from interviews, a fundamental building block of news coverage. The paper sued the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, eventually winning its battle to obtain the right to keep asking the sheriff the tough questions.

 

PROTECTING THEIR SOURCES

When Saratoga High School student Audrie Potts committed suicide in September 2012, her parents alleged she was pushed over the edge by cyber bullying over photos of Potts at a party. High school journalists Samuel Liu, Sabrina Chen, and Cristina Curcelli of The Saratoga Falcon scooped the sensational national media outlets that descended on the story, but they were subpoenaed by the Potts family to reveal their sources.

They refused, citing California’s shield law in a successful legal defense that strengthened the rights of student journalists. As Liu said, “We are not willing to destroy our journalistic integrity by giving up our confidential sources, we got this information on the condition of anonymity, from people that trusted us.”

 

BUYING FRIENDS AT CITY HALL

Bay Guardian News Editor Rebecca Bowe and Reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez are being honored with a Journalist Award for “Friends in the Shadows,” (10/8/13) our investigation of the shady ways that developers and other powerful players buy influence at City Hall.

“Their detailed and thorough account explored a trail of money through myriad city agencies and departments,” the awards committee wrote, noting how the paper “used public records, interviews and independent research to probe how developers, corporations and city contractors use indirect gifts to city agencies to buy influence.”

 

NEWS FROM INSIDE

For accomplishing “extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances,” The San Quentin News is being honored with a News Media Award. It is California’s only inmate-produced newspaper, and one of the few in existence worldwide.

The San Quentin News publishes about 20 pages monthly, and has a press run of 11,500 for inmates, correctional officers, staff, and community members. It’s distributed to 17 other prisons throughout California.

Under the scrutiny of prison authorities, the inmate journalists and volunteers wound up covering a historic prison hunger strike, the overcrowding of the prison population, and the denial of compassionate release for a dying inmate, an octogenarian with a terminal illness.

 

EXPOSING TORTURERS

The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), better known as the name it held prior to 2001, the School of the Americas, is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers and commanders, with many graduates going on to commit human rights atrocities.

School of the Americas Watch founder Judith Litesky, a former nun, and Theresa Cameranesi, filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco seeking the list of those who had gone though courses that include counter insurgency techniques, sniper training, psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics.

Last year, the pair won a significant victory when a federal judge in Oakland ruled that the government could not cite national security reasons in withholding the names. Although the case is ongoing, they are being honored with a Citizen Award.

 

FIGHTING CORPORATE SNOOPS

In 2008, journalists from The New York Times and BusinessWeek looked to Terry Gross of Gross Belsky Alonso for legal counsel in a case against Hewlett-Packard. In a staggering display of corporate snooping, the tech giant had illegally obtained private telephone records of the journalists, in an attempt to gain access to the identities of their sources.

Gross has also defended journalists against police in cases regarding media access for breaking-news events, and he’s helped to expand the rights of online journalists. This year, Gross will receive the FOI Legal Counsel Award.

 

BAD BRIDGE, GOOD JOURNALIST

Sacramento Bee Senior Investigative Reporter Charles Piller will be honored with a Journalist Award for exposing corrosion problems in the long delayed, cost-plagued eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. His breaking story and subsequent follow-ups revealed Caltrans’ inadequate corrosion testing, as well as inadequate responses to bridge inspectors who for more than two years warned Caltrans of water leaks and corrosion — only to go unheeded.

 

SUNSHINE COLUMNIST

Editorial and Commentary Award winner Daniel Borenstein, who writes for the Bay Area News Group, issued a strong response to a legislative attack on California’s Public Records Act last year, ultimately helping to defeat proposed changes that would have gutted the law.

“Without the state Public Records Act, we would never know about the Oakley City Manager’s $366,500 taxpayer-funded mortgage scheme, the Washington Township hospital CEO’s $800,000-plus annual compensation or the retired San Ramon Valley fire chief’s $310,000 yearly pension,” Borenstein wrote in one of his columns. “We would be ignorant of broken bolts on the Bay Bridge, the cover-up of Moraga teachers sexually abusing students, a BART train operator who collected salary and benefits totaling $193,407, the former BART general manager who received $420,000 the year after she was fired or the Port of Oakland executives who spent $4,500 one night at a Texas strip club.”