Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Washington DC where I was honored by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) at their joint convention with the Associated Press. I was nominated for the award by my friend Carlos Miller, an activist and photojournalist in South Florida.
I was in Washington for three days. On Monday I was recognized for my body of work in open government activism. I spent the remainder of the trip as the guest of the ASNE attending various meetings and seminars hosted by the ASNE, the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) and the Associated Press (AP). Those events included a luncheon with President Obama, a luncheon with Governor Mitt Romney, a session with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, a private tour of the Newseum and a session with Arianna Huffington and others.
At the request of a number of folks I’ve placed below, the text of my acceptance speech delivered to several hundred newspaper editors on Monday following an introduction by ASNE President and former Editor of USA Today, Ken Paulson.
I’d like to thank my friend Carlos Miller for his nomination, the committee for their selection and the ASNE for their hospitality.
Friends, acquaintances and critics have warned me that my obsession with ferreting out corrupt public officials and then suing them seems almost self-destructive. I don’t believe that being obsessive or compulsive about open government issues is anything to be ashamed of particularly when it is born from a deep concern for the future of newspapers and investigative journalism.
In Florida we enjoy what are arguably the most generous open government laws in the country, and we have newspapers to thank for most of the case law that serves as the foundation for that right. It’s fair to say that without newspapers Floridians would not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to public records access.
But times have changed. Newspapers are no longer the principle belligerents in open government litigation. They can no longer afford to sue errant public officials at the drop of a hat.
I fear those facts are a harbinger of things to come. If newspapers fail to flourish, we will lose one of the most potent forces for open government that we have ever known.
That is why I believe the greatest threat to our democracy is not terrorism; it is not the radicalism of the far right and the far left; it is not even the Orwellian abuses of power that have been codified in the impertinantly titled “Patriot Act.” As real as all of those threats are they pale in comparison to the demise of America’s newspapers and with it investigative journalism.
I can only imagine the frustrations and indignities that you folks are forced to endure – shrinking add revenue, increasing competition from new media and pirates who steal your content with total disregard the value of intellectual property rights. In your shoes I would be tempted to retire to a hammock in the Florida Keys and let the rest of America twist in the wind as they enjoy the just deserts of a fickle affair with the media. But I don’t want you to do that.
Instead I want to remind you that there are still regular folks in America that see the value of a free and vibrant press and see the danger in its demise. For the sake of our democracy please forgive the short attention span of the American public. We don’t deserve it, but we still need you to find new ways to make your businesses survive and flourish. It’s not hyperbole to say that democracy depends upon it.