NATHAN ALTADONNA / The Working Press
Veteran journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. urged his colleagues Friday to continue to defend the First Amendment and to seek and report the truth.
“To do less is to betray the words of that amendment,” said Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center and founding editorial director of USA Today.
Seigenthaler, 80, received a standing ovation from the 200 or so people who attended a session on “Defending a Free Press.”
USA Today Editor Ken Paulson led a presentation on challenges to the First Amendment by the government and the public.
John Seigenthaler Sr., founder of the First Amendment Center, will receive SPJ’s First Amendment Award during the President’s Installation Banquet on Saturday night.
The center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. It studies and explores free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, the press and religion, and the right to assemble and petition the government. It has offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Arlington, Va.
The award recognizes individuals and groups for extraordinarily strong efforts to preserve and strengthen the First Amendment.
Paulson said SPJ members should take a more active role in fighting for their constitutional rights, including launching a campaign to educate the public on the importance of the First Amendment.
“America’s news organizations have not always taken a visible stance on what we do,” he said.
Paulson said he was attracted to journalism by the idealism of Superman. He wasn’t as impressed by the super powers as he was by his alter ego, reporter Clark Kent.
“I think I was the only kid in America whose pulse quickened when Clark Kent was on the screen,” Paulson said.
Paulson said reporters were idealized in television and pop culture during the 1950s and 1960s. They were heroes fighting for “truth, justice and the American way.”
That isn’t the case today; the public no longer respects the profession, he said.
“The real heroes of American journalism don’t wear capes,” but are the ones who risk their lives and freedom to report the truth, he said.
Eve Burton, general counsel for the Hearst Corp., agreed that journalists have lost their advocates.
“We are in a war without weapons,” she said.
Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said recent polls by the center found that 83 percent of likely American voters said the media are biased.
“It moves beyond just doubt,” Policinski said of the public’s view of the media, which he blamed on reporters not doing a good enough job explaining their role.
To increase public awareness, Paulson is working with national journalism organizations, including SPJ and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, as well as librarians, entertainers and other professionals on a new campaign called, “Liberty Tree Initiative.”
Paulson said talking about the First Amendment at a journalism convention might be the same as preaching to the choir, but that these singers have been too quiet.
“This choir needs to sing out loud and clear,” he said. “There are people counting on us.”