Informing the public

Pub date March 9, 2010
SectionGreen City

Information is power. But too often, those with political power guard public documents and information from the journalists, activists, lawyers, and others who seek it on the people’s behalf. So every year, we at the Guardian honor those who fight for a freer and more open society by highlighting the annual winners of the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, which are given by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

This year’s winners are:

Beverly Kees Educator Award

Rachele Kanigel

Rachele Kanigel, an associate professor of journalism and advisor to Golden Gate Xpress publications at San Francisco State University, has been highly involved in student press rights work on a national level. She wrote The Student Newspaper Survival Guide (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), a book designed to empower budding campus reporters. A champion of the free speech rights of her students, Kanigel has gone to bat on several occasions on behalf of student journalists whose work was challenged by interests that didn’t believe students should be afforded the same protections as professional reporters. Kanigel sees part of her job as educating the world about the importance of student journalists and standing up for their rights. “A lot of people won’t talk to student journalists, but they’re doing some really important work,” she said. “A lot of what we have to do is to assure the student journalists and tell the world outside that these are journalists.” The educator award is named in honor of Beverly Kees, who was the SPJ NorCal chapter president at the time of her death in 2004.

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award

Mark Fricker

Mary Fricker is the kind of investigative reporter many of us would like to be.

She started out in the 1980s investigating complaints of irregularities at her local savings and loan when she was reporting for the old Russian River News community paper. Her dogged research and hard-hitting stories produced the first major investigation into the toxic problems of financial deregulation in S&Ls. Her work won numerous awards, including the Gerald Loeb Award given out by UCLA and the prestigious George Polk Award, and ultimately led to the book, Inside Job: The Looting of America’s Savings and Loan. The book won Best Book of the Year award from the Investigative Reporters and Editors association.

Fricker did business reporting and major investigative work for 20 years with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. She retired and joined the Chauncey Bailey Project as a volunteer investigative reporter, researcher, Web site maestro, and general good spirit. Her work included several key investigations that determined that the Oakland Police Department was virtually alone in not taping interviews with suspects in investigations. Her stories changed that practice. She is a most worthy recipient of the Norwin S.<0x2009>Yoffie award, which honors the memory of the former publisher of the Marin Independent Journal, a founder of the SPJ/FOI committee, and a splendid warrior in the cause of Freedom of Information.

Professional Journalist

G.W. Schulz

G.W. Schulz was busy when we got him on the phone. “I’m sending out about eight or nine new freedom of information requests a day,” he said. “I fired off a few to the governor of Texas this morning.”

The relentless reporter is working on the Center for Investigative Reporting’s program exposing homeland security spending. It hasn’t been easy. Since the federal government began making big grants to local agencies for supposed antiterrorism and civil emergency equipment and programs, following the money has required unusual persistence. Homeland Security officials don’t even know where their grants are going, so Schulz has been forced to dig deeper.

“I think this is the biggest open government campaign I’ll ever do in my career,” he said. “We’re juggling dozens of requests, state by state. And it’s breathtaking what some people will ignore in their own public records laws.”

He’s found widespread abuse. “These agencies are getting all this expensive equipment and they don’t even maintain it or train their staff how to use it,” he said. CIR is not only doing its own stories, it’s working with local papers that don’t have the resources to do this kind of work. “Lots of great stories in the pipeline,” he said before signing off to get back to the battle. “I’m really excited.”

Legal Counsel

Ann Brick/ACLU

On the heels of a now-infamous Supreme Court ruling on so-called First Amendment rights for corporate political speech, SPJ is honoring an individual who has made a career devoted to protecting real, individual free speech rights for almost 20 years. Ann Brick, staff attorney for the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has litigated in defense of privacy rights, free speech, government accountability, and student rights in cases ranging from book burning to Internet speech to illegal government wiretapping. “I can’t tell you how much of an honor it is to have worked with the ACLU,” she says, adding, “I can’t think of another award I’d rather get than this one — an award from journalists.” But the public’s gratitude goes to Brick, whose years of service are a shining example of speaking truth to power.

Computer Assisted Reporting

Phillip Reese

Phillip Reese of The Sacramento Bee is being honored for his unrelenting pursuit of public records and for producing interactive databases. Reese was the architect of the Bee‘s data center, providing readers readily accessible information about legislative voting records, neighborhood election results, state employee salaries, and other important information. At one point, the city of Sacramento demanded several thousand dollars in exchange for employee salary data. Reese gathered the city’s IT workers and a city attorney for a meeting, where he argued that organizing records in an analyzable format would insure the system wasn’t being abused, so they chose to provide the records for free. The online databases provide public access to records that are often disorganized and cryptic. “Sometimes these databases go well with a story, and sometimes they can stand on the Internet alone. People can view them in a way that is important to themselves,” Reese said.

Public Official

Leland Yee

State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has been an open government advocate since his days on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and one of his favorite targets is the administration of the University of California. He has fought to protect UC students from administrators who want to curtail their free-speech right and to get documents from university officials.

In 2008, he authored and passed SB 1696, which blocked the university from hiding audit information behind a private contractor. UCSF was refusing to release the information in an audit the school paid a private contractor to conduct. “I read about this in the newspaper and I was just scratching my head. How can public officials do this stuff?” Yee said. He had to overcome resistance from university officials and public agencies arguing that the state shouldn’t be sticking its nose into their business. “But it’s public money, and they’re public entities, and the people have a right to know where that money is going.”

Computer Assisted Reporting

Thomas Peele and Daniel Willis

This duo with the Bay Area News Group, which includes 15 daily and 14 community newspapers around the Bay Area, performed monumental multitasking when they decided to crunch the salaries of more than 194,000 public employees from 97 government agencies into a database. Honored with the Computer Assisted Reporting Award, the duo provided the public with a database that translated a gargantuan amount of records into understandable information. They had to submit dozens of California Public Records Act requests to access the records of salaries that account for more than $1.8 billion in taxpayer money. “It is important that the public know how its money is spent. This data base, built rather painstakingly one public records act request at a time by Danny Willis and myself as a public service, goes a long way in helping people follow the money,” Peele said.


Californians Aware: The Center for Public Forum Rights

California’s sunshine laws, including the Brown Act open meeting law and California Public Records Act, aren’t bad. Unfortunately, they are routinely flouted by public officials, often making it necessary to go to court to enforce them. That’s why we need groups like CalAware, and individuals like its president, Rick McKee, and its counsel, longtime media attorney Terry Francke. Last year, while defending an Orange County school board member’s free speech rights and trying to restore a censored public meeting transcript, CalAware not only found itself losing the case on an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion, but being ordered to pay more than $80,000 in school district legal fees. “It’s never been easy, but that was going to be the end of private enforcement of the Brown Act,” Francke said. Luckily, Sen. Leland Yee intervened with legislation that prevents awarding attorney fees in such sunshine cases, leaving CalAware bruised but unbowed. “We’ve become active in court like never before.”

News Media

SF Public Press/McSweeney’s

Last year, when author Dave Eggers and his McSweeney’s magazine staff decided to put out a single newspaper issue (because “it’s a form we love,” Eggers told us), they filled San Francisco Panorama with the unusual mix of writers, topics, and graphics one might expect from a literary enterprise. But they wanted a hard-hitting investigation on the cover, so they turned to the nonprofit SF Public Press and reporters Robert Porterfield and Patricia Decker. Together, they worked full-time for four months to gather information on cost overruns on the Bay Bridge rebuild, fighting for public records and information from obscure agencies and an intransigent CalTrans. “We’re still dealing with this. I’ve been trying to secure documents for a follow-up and I keep getting the runaround,” said Decker, a new journalist with a master’s degree in engineering, a nice complement to Porterfield, an award-winning old pro. “He’s a great mentor, just such a fount of knowledge.”

Professional Journalist

Sean Webby

San Jose Mercury News reporter Sean Webby won for a series spotlighting the San Jose Police Department’s use of force and how difficult it is for the public or the press to track.

The department and the San Jose City Council refused to release use-of-force reports, so Webby obtained them through public court files. He zeroed in on incidents that involved “resisting arrest” charges, and even uncovered a cell phone video in which officers Tasered and battered suspects who did not appear to be resisting.

Webby has won numerous awards in the past, but says he is particularly proud of this one. “Freedom of information is basically our mission statement, our bible, our motto,” he said. “We feel like the less resistance the average person has to getting information, the better the system works.”

Webby said that despite causing some tension between his paper and the San Jose Police Department, the project was well worth it. “We are never going to back off the hard questions. It’s our job as a watchdog organization.”

Public Service

Rita Williams

KTVU’s Rita Williams is being honored for her tireless efforts to establish a media room in the San Francisco Federal Building that provides broadcasters the same access to interviews as print reporters.

Television and radio equipment was banned from the federal pressroom following 9/11, but Williams solicited support from television stations, security agencies, the courts, and the National Bar Association. After a six-year push, they were able to restore access.

Williams and her supporters converted a storage unit in the federal building into a full-blown media center, which was well-used during the Proposition 8 trial. “I only did two days of the trials, but every time I walked into the room, I would just be swarmed with camera folks saying thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said. “I’m getting close to retirement and I was in the first wave of women in broadcasting, and I’m proud that almost 40 years later, I can leave this legacy.”


Melissa Nix

With her Betty Page looks, dogged sense of justice, and journalistic training, Melissa Nix became a charismatic and relentless force in the quest to find out how her ex-boyfriend Hugues de la Plaza really died in 2007. Nix began her efforts after the San Francisco medical examiner declared it was unable to determine how de la Plaza died and the San Francisco Police Department seemed to be leaning toward categorizing the case as a suicide. Using personal knowledge of de la Plaza and experience as a reporter with The Sacramento Bee, Nix got the French police involved, who ruled the death a homicide, and unearthed the existence of an independent medical examiner report that concluded that de la Plaza was murdered.


Daniel Borenstein

Contra Costa Times reporter Daniel Borenstein wasn’t out to deprive public worker retirees of yachting, country club golf, and rum-y cocktails at tropical resorts. The columnist was only trying to figure out how, for example, the chief of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District turned a $185,000 salary into a $241,000 annual pension. Borenstein’s effort to unearth and make public, in easily readable spreadsheets, the records of all Contra Costa County public employee pensioners led the Contra Costa Times to a court victory stipulating just that: all records would be released promptly on request without allowing retirees time to go to court to block access. The effects have been noticeable: “I get scores of e-mails most weeks in reaction to the columns I’m writing on pensions, [and] public officials are much more sensitive to the issue,” Borenstein says. It is a precedent that has carried into the Modesto Bee‘s similar pension-disclosure efforts in Stanislaus County.

Student Name Withheld After a photojournalism student at San Francisco State University snapped photographs at the scene of a fatal shooting in Bayview-Hunters Point, police skipped the usual process of using a subpoena to seek evidence, and went straight into his home with a search warrant to seize this student’s work. But with the help of his attorney, the student quashed the warrant, arguing California’s shield law prevents law enforcement from compelling journalists to disclose unpublished information. He won, and the case served to demonstrate that the shield law should apply to nontraditional journalists.

The student is being recognized because he resisted the warrant rather than caving into the demands of law enforcement. Invoking the shield law in such cases prevents reporters from being perceived as extensions of law enforcement by the communities they report on, enabling a free exchange of information. The student remained anonymous in the aftermath of the shooting because he feared for his life. Based on his ongoing concerns, NorCal SPJ and the Guardian have agreed to honor his wish to have his name withheld.