Freeing the press

Pub date March 10, 2009

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award


Bob Porterfield is a shit-disturber, an old-fashioned investigative reporter who has no favorites, no sacred cows, and no fear of offending anyone. Since his first story — a profile of a YMCA social program published in Eugene, Ore.’s The Register-Guard in 1959, when he was 15 — Porterfield has had ink in his veins. He’s shared two Pulitzer Prizes (first for an Anchorage Daily News report on the Teamsters Union in 1975 and then for a series on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for The Boston Globe), won more than two dozen other prizes and worked on a long list of major investigative projects.

He has become something of an expert in computer-assisted reporting and information systems — but is still a down-to-earth guy who never forgot the value of traditional, hands-on digging. Back in 1986, he was on a team at Newsday looking into the federal Synfuels Corp., a scandal-plagued agency that was shut down in the wake of his stories.

"I remember once we were looking for property records on a Synfuels Corp. project linked to [former CIA Director) Bill Casey," he told me. "I wound up going down to Plymouth, N.C., (population 4,000), and I found this musty old office with two older women sitting there, knitting. There was no index book, nothing computerized. But when I explained what I was looking for, one of the women remembered the parcel of land I was talking about and pulled out the exact documents for me."

Porterfield has devoted a tremendous amount of time to teaching and mentoring, showing young reporters how to use public records to find stories. "I’m glad to see [President Obama’s] new directive on openness, but I hope it trickles down to the independent agencies," he said. "Because there’s been way, way too much secrecy." (Tim Redmond)

Beverly Kees Educator Award


Alan Gibson is reclaiming the Founding Fathers from conservatives with

his recent book Understanding the Founding: The Crucial Questions (University Press of Kansas, 2007). It examines the progressive ideals that guided early American political thought.

"The Founding Fathers are often captured by conservatives," Gibson told the Guardian. "But there is no clear line of legacy. It is much more complex than that. Conservative restoration politics are dangerous and not historically accurate."

As an undergraduate, Gibson cultivated an interest in issues of separation of church and state, which led to doctoral studies on James Madison, the namesake of the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Freedom of Information awards. "Madison was the most progressive of all [the Founding Fathers] when it comes to freedom of the press," Gibson said. "He helped develop the idea that American government should be responsive to public opinion, and the role of newspapers was to make sure that an authentic public opinion was set forth." Gibson, a political science professor at California State University-Chico, lectures at various colleges across the country. Understanding the Founding will be published in paperback later this year. (Laura Peach)

Professional Journalists


Journalists often get alarming tips about practices within Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies, but it has always been a nearly impossible task to overcome privacy protections and get even basic information about how CPS handles reports of child abuse or neglect.

"It’s a difficult agency to write about, for some good reasons," Sacramento Bee reporter Marjie Lundstrom, who set out in 2007 to investigate complaints about Sacramento’s CPS, told the Guardian. "They operate in such a vacuum with very little public scrutiny."

She had started to piece together some information from coroner’s records and other public documents when Senate Bill 39 went into effect in January 2008, "and it was just amazing what it opened up."

The bill reveals CPS files in cases where the child has died, allowing Lundstrom to expose the negligence of CPS workers in responding to abuse reports, even those from doctors. "I do feel like what we were able to show, because of the law, where workers made flagrant mistakes that costs kids their lives," she said.

But many CPS records are still secret. Next, after writing several stories about CPS that sparked a grand jury investigation, Lundstrom intends to expose problems within the internal accountability procedures at CPS. (Steven T. Jones)


When the news broke last September that 15-year-old Jazzmin Davis had been murdered by her aunt after suffering months of abuse and neglect in her Antioch home, Bay Area News Group reporters Hilary Costa and John Simerman submitted a public records request about the girl’s case history with the San Francisco Human Services Agency.

The city denied the request for nearly two months, using a privacy claim. Undeterred, the journalists took the step of testing out Senate Bill 39, a relatively new piece of legislation that mandates public disclosure of findings and information about children who have died of abuse or neglect. A judge eventually ordered that the records be released.

Although highly redacted, the nearly 700-page paper trail told the girl’s story in the form of hand-written notes, report cards, medical records, caseworker visits, and other detailed documents. The records led to a package of stories that exposed a series of failures and violations of state regulations by an HSA social worker, raising questions about agency practices and spurring a review of hundreds of other foster care cases.

"This story’s been so important to me," Costa told the Guardian. "It felt like somebody owed it to Jazzmin to find out what happened to her." (Rebecca Bowe)

Interactive Media


Sacramento Bee photographer Autumn Cruz had been covering the trial of three-year-old K.C. Balbuena’s murder for several months when she came up with the concept of creating an interactive online courtroom. With the help of Bee graphic journalist Mitchell Brooks, Cruz made public the essential pieces of evidence and information to those outside the courtroom doors.

Viewers can take a virtual tour of the exhibits and documents, along with video and audio statements and interrogations. "As a journalist, you’re fighting every day for your right to information," Cruz told the Guardian.

Although Balbuena’s mother and roommate were found guilty of the murder in early 2008, Cruz laments her inability to bring back the child she grew to know so intimately only after his life was cut short. "I think my bringing his plight to the public will hopefully prevent similar things from happening to other children." (Joe Sciareillo)



Journalist Bert Robinson is a longtime journalist who now serves as assistant managing editor for the San Jose Mercury News. But he’s being honored for his work as a citizen serving on San Jose’s Sunshine Reform Task Force.

"We set out on our sunshine ordinance adventure a few years ago. We found we were faring worse in court, and we couldn’t afford increased court costs," Robinson, a member of the California First Amendment Coalition, told the Guardian.

The project received political endorsements across the spectrum, but the initiative has had problems with the city council’s Rules Committee, controlled by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who has supported sunshine in the past.

"We achieved progress with public meeting requirements, but when you get into public records, city staff argue that rules are ‘too cumbersome’ … They say all sorts of things might happen if they become public, [which is] entirely hypothetical," Robinson said.

Task Force work that was slated to last six months has now dragged on for two years. "The city process grinds you down," Robinson said. But he says he’s committed to seeing it through. (Ben Terrall)

Legal Counsel


James Ewert, an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, has long battled what he calls widespread secrecy in government. So in 2004, he played an instrumental role in providing greater public access to government meetings and records, resulting in the passage that November of Proposition 59, the Sunshine Amendment of California’s constitution.

Most recently Ewert helped Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) with legislation protecting teachers from retribution from administrators when they defend the First Amendment rights of journalism students. Next Ewert hopes to allow greater scrutiny of public/press partnerships and how tax dollars are used in labor negotiations by the public university systems.

Ewert says the public’s right to know is still severely hampered by public safety concerns, including restrictions on journalists’ rights to interview prisoners and obtain information about police officers. But luckily for the public, Ewert is still on the job. (Andrew Shaw)

Student Journalists — High School


Before April 2008, Drew Ross had never had to defend the existence of the Eureka High School Redwood Bark, where he was the editor. But after arriving on campus one Monday morning to find that former principal Robert Steffen had removed 450 copies of a 20-page color edition of the paper, Ross and his staff fought back.

Steffen claimed that the nude, dream-like drawing by artist Natalie Gonzalez had ushered in a handful of complaints from students and parents. Steffen justified the action by saying he was "stomping out the flames before they became a forest fire."

"We told him we wanted to hold onto the paper but he recycled them," Ross told the Guardian. "We don’t make the paper for it to be thrown away. And we lost a lot of advertising on this."

Ross complained about censorship and got help from the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union. By the next day, the censorship story went front page at newspapers and Internet sites all over the country. Eventually Steffen not only sent out a public apology, he paid for the next 20-page color edition.

"We are now armed with knowledge of our rights," Ross said. "And the community knows the Redwood Bark has rights." (Deia de Brito)


Shasta High School student Amanda Cope speaks passionately about freedom of speech after her brush with censorship, telling the Guardian, "We are preserving the validity of the Constitution. Free speech is a protection, a safety, that lets us function normally without fear."

Cope was editor-in-chief of the Shasta High School student paper, The Volcano, when a controversy flared over the paper’s end-of-year issue, which featured a front-page image of a student burning an American flag. Shasta High principal Milan Woollard was already considering shutting down The Volcano when the issue came out and publicly stated: "This cements that decision."

But following a maelstrom of objection from Cope and the rest of The Volcano staff in what looked like a form of censorship in schools, the school district reversed its decision. "I think a lot of students feel they are marginalized in society. They’re teenagers. They don’t have many rights and they feel like they’re squished by adults and people in general," Cope said. "The student paper becomes an outlet for those feelings, and a way for students to explore their world." (Juliette Tang)


Last November, the principal of Carlmont High School in Belmont shut down the student paper, The Scots Express. School officials claimed that the paper lacked adequate faculty oversight after it published a satirical article about the writer’s sex appeal.

Editor-in-chief Alex Zhang fought back against what he saw as censorship and rejected school officials’ justifications. "I just wanted my paper back," he told the Guardian.

In response to the uproar over what many saw as a muzzling of the press, the Sequoia Union High School District began training Carlmont staff on First Amendment rights and mandated an overhaul of the school’s freedom of speech policy. The district is planning an expansion of its journalism programs in the school curriculum and a partnership with the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club.

Zhang is working on relaunching the publication in late March under the faculty oversight of English teacher Raphael Kauffmann. "You can’t have a democracy without freedom of information," Zhang said. "And I’m proud to be one of those young journalists who care about the freedom of information." (Joe Sciarrillo)



As the Guardian chronicled in a cover story last year ("Hunting the lord of war," June 23, 2008), San Francisco-based human rights investigator Kathi Austin has spent almost two decades tracking down and exposing those who have made a business out of human rights violations.

Most recently, Austin helped bring the notorious Viktor Bout, a Russian entrepreneur accused of illegally trafficking weapons to brutal regimes from Colombia to the Congo.

"A human rights violation is considered a violation that is carried out by a state actor," Austin told the Guardian. "We were trying to change the whole field of human rights to philosophically say we should be going after these private perpetrators as well."

Thanks largely to Austin’s work, Bout was arrested in Thailand in March 2008 and will likely face criminal charges in the United States. Despite working in treacherous places like Angola and Rwanda, doing meticulous and time-consuming research, Austin said her approach is simple: "What’s wrong and who’s doing it?"

Her patience and persistent pursuit of international justice have led Austin to positions at the U.N., the World Bank, the Center for Human Rights, and the Council on Foreign Relations, to name a few. A Paramount picture featuring Angelina Jolie as Austin is reportedly in production — a fittingly karmic return of celebrity for someone who has worked so long under the public radar. (Breena Kerr)

Electronic access


Once upon a time, before 2005, the only way to connect the dots between the dollars contributed to politicians and the special access and favorable laws they subsequently granted to contributors was to wade through reams of campaign finance filings. While everyone knew that money talked, few knew just how much campaign cash was dictating public policy.

But now, thanks to, a Berkeley nonprofit that uses sophisticated analytical tools to produce visually pleasing, easy-to-use charts, there is now a fun, simple way to follow the money.

MAPlight began by putting up data connected to the pro-consumer bill informally known as the Car Buyer’s Bill of Rights. "The data showed that car dealers gave twice as much to Sacramento legislators who voted to kill the bill than to those who voted to pass it," executive director David Newman recalled.

Next, MAPlight pioneered the combination of campaign dollars and politicians’ votes when it launched its U.S. Congress site in May 2007. Most recently its research showed that House members who voted for the $700 billion financial bailout bill received 50 percent more money from the financial services industry than those who voted against it.

Newman plans to expand to all 50 states. "Wherever there is journalism to be done, MAPlight can provide support and help promote openness and transparency in government." (Sarah Phelan)

The Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists hosts its annual James Madison Awards dinner March 18 in the New Delhi Restaurant, 160 Ellis St., SF. The no-host reception begins at 5:50 p.m. followed by dinner and the awards programs at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 for SPJ members and $70 for non-members. For reservations or information, contact Freedom of Information Committee chair David Greene at (510) 208-7744 or or visit