By: Tony Case Incoming Society of Professional Journalists national president says the First Amendment is under siege and he wants his membership ready to fight off challenges sp.
PAUL MCMASTERS FEARS that he'll be known as the national nag rather than the Society of Professional Journalists national president by the end of his term next fall. But McMasters believes that the journalism profession and the First Amendment are under siege and he wants to get the society's membership ready to take on challenges that face these institutions. At the SPJ national convention this month in Miami, McMasters, who is chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, disclosed his plans for leading the organization at a time when the press has been threatened as never before. SPJ also has seen better days. The 13,500-member society, like other professional groups, has had financial difficulty. Also, SPJ leaders have had to address members' concerns about such issues as dues and the organization's future while they work to attract new members. McMasters said he will visit SPJ chapters in each state to increase awareness of free-press rights and responsibilities and to promote SPJ. His tour is being underwritten by the Arlington, Va.-based First Amendment advocacy group Freedom Forum, of which McMasters is a vice president. Building membership is the most important element of strengthening SPJ, McMasters said. He urged each conventioneer to bring one new member into the association.
SPJ was the only national association of professional journalists when it was founded as Sigma Delta Chi in 1909. Now, the society has to compete for members with many other groups that have cropped up over the years. There are associations for business writers and copy editors, editorial writers and travel editors, newspaper designers and religion columnists. And as many news managers have become committed to ? some say obsessed with ? diversifying their staffs by recruiting minorities, national associations of minority journalists, which represent blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and gays, have gained momentum. Promoting multiculturalism in the newsroom is a priority of SPJ as well. Diversity was the focus of the society's previous president Georgiana Vines; it also was the theme of the Miami meeting. The convention offered a diversity education certificate program that featured workshops with such piquant titles as "Seeing Yourself and Your Bias" and " 'That's Not What I Meant ? Don't You Understand Plain English?' " Some sessions were conducted in Spanish. In conjunction with the meeting, SPJ sponsored a daylong minority job fair, which attracted recruiters from about 20 media companies, including Knight-Ridder Inc., Landmark Communications Inc., Time Inc. and Thomson Newspapers.
Last minority job fair
Grousing among some non-minority students and professionals who saw the job fair as exclusionary so concerned McMasters that he decided that this would be the last minority job fair at the annual convention. McMasters said the society would address diversity by providing career programs that offer hands-on training for writing resumes and finding work. The convention theme was not a "cynical ploy" to raid memberships of minority journalist organizations, he said. "We're not that stupid. SPJ does not attempt to offer all that the minority groups offer." SPJ's concentration on multiculturalism demonstrates "a commitment to more diversity in news pages, in newscasts and in the newsrooms," McMasters said. "If that commitment reminds people out there that they have a home at SPJ, that's fine, too." McMasters believes that SPJ is unique because it represents a broad cross section of the journalism community ? print and broadcast professionals, academics and students. "We feel that this gives us a little more credibility in Washington because we don't have a particular ax to grind as far as an industry is concerned," he said, noting that SPJ has fought freedom-of-information battles from Capitol Hill to City Hall. "We're speaking on behalf of journalism with a big J." The competition among SPJ and other organizations is healthy because it forces all the groups to be better, McMasters said. The only time that it could be bad is if the viability of any association were threatened. Recruitment of new members will be "simple," he said, "if we do a good job of reminding the people who are in SPJ now how important it is to them and to the profession and how important the profession is to our democracy." As part of its membership drive, SPJ is offering associate memberships to people interested in the society's activities but who are not journalism practitioners, educators or students. Associate members pay dues and may attend the national convention, but they cannot hold office or vote in elections. A popular "whine" of the society's members is "All you get with SPJ is a bill and a Quill," the group's monthly magazine, McMasters said. But, he added, "Your real reward from SPJ comes with what you put into SPJ. If it's just a dues check, then you're cheating yourself as well as the society."
Of course, those dues checks are important ? especially considering SPJ's less-than-rosy financial state. For the fiscal year that ended July 31, SPJ reported a deficit of $115,049, compared to $90,776 a year earlier. Revenues were up 22.6% from last year, but expenses increased 22.9%. SPJ programs and the Quill "did not produce enough revenue to cover their share of expenses," the association said, and its cash reserves have been "essentially depleted for several years." If SPJ succeeds in attracting new members, revenues will increase. Still, members fear that the association will raise dues to make up for the deficit. Low attendance at the Miami convention also spelled bad news for SPJ. Only 700 people came, compared to 1,600 at the 1992 meeting in Baltimore. McMasters said he expected attendance to be down this year because it set a record last year. He cited economics and recent violence in Florida as reasons that some members might have stayed away. (Convention materials urged members to "use caution and common sense when driving in Miami.")
First Amendment thrust
Under Vines' leadership, SPJ emphasized promoting diversity in journalism. McMasters also has a mission: preaching the gospel of the First Amendment to "a choir that apparently has been missing a lot of practice and has forgotten the words." McMasters is surprised by the number of journalists who don't understand or appreciate their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution. He believes that newspeople who aren't well-versed in the First Amendment are in "grave danger" of damaging the profession. "If we're ignorant about free-press values or apathetic about it or even hostile about it, then we put a constitutional franchise in jeopardy," he said. "The press is the only profession ? or calling, if you will ? that is singled out for this responsibility in the Constitution." Most people will say they support the right of free speech when they really believe in free speech for themselves not others, McMasters observed. But the First Amendment "says that you shall stand up and defend the right of the other guy to have free speech because it's only the unpopular speech or speech that offends or speech that makes us uncomfortable that needs protection," he said. Media today are on the defensive, McMasters pointed out. They regularly are criticized, questioned and critiqued and they are faced with technological and societal changes at every turn. At the same time, the press is doing its job better than ever, he added. "It's more sophisticated, it's fairer, it's more balanced and there are many more voices out there than ever before. The American audience is getting more in the way of good media than it ever has." McMasters expressed concern about the turmoil facing the campus press. Newspapers at more than two dozen colleges and universities have been trashed in recent months, he noted, and the student press routinely is denied access to crime records and locked out of campus judicial proceedings. "Of all the places where you can practice a free press with little serious consequence, the college campus is it," he said. "Besides, that's the place where free inquiry and free expression should have their safest haven." The threat to student journalists has "real and tangible" implications for the profession, he continued, because students who eventually will take their places in U.S. newsrooms will "carry with them the prejudices, pressures and ideas they get on campus." McMasters accused college and university officials and "those little bureaucrats working in the bowels of the Education Department" of caring more about public perception than protecting students, faculty and staff. He blasted school officials who persuade victims to not report crimes to local law enforcement, letting campus courts handle the cases instead. "That's very appealing to victims because they don't want to go through this whole thing again," he said. "But what they don't tell them is that the crime is quietened. Nobody knows it happened, nobody knows if anybody's been caught or prosecuted, and nobody knows whether justice is done." ?("If we're ignorant about free-press values or apathetic about it or even hostile about it, then we put a constitutional franchise in jeopardy.") [Caption] ?(? Paul McMasters, SPJ president) [Photo]