The Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, is honoring
TV news producer and investigative reporter Lowell Bergman with its Norwin S.
Yoffie Career Achievement Award for epitomizing the values of freedom of information
throughout his career.
Bergman, Kees, and 11 other James Madison FOI Award winners will be honored at a dinner ceremony on Wednesday, March 16, 2005, at Sinbad’s Restaurant, Pier 2, San Francisco. Tickets for the dinner cost $50 for SPJ members, $60 for non-members, and $40 for students. For information about the awards dinner, call (510) 208-7744. KPIX anchor Ken Bastida and KFOG news director Peter Finch will emcee the award ceremony, which takes place on National Freedom of Information Day.
A complete list of this year’s winners is below.
The James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, named for the creative force behind the First Amendment, honor local journalists, organizations, public officials and private citizens who have fought for public access to government meetings and records, or have promoted the public’s right to know, publish, broadcast and speak freely about issues of public concern. Award winners are selected by the Northern California Chapter's Freedom of Information Committee.
The Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award is named in memory of the former publisher and general manager of the Marin Independent Journal, who gave many years of distinguished service to SPJ and the cause of freedom of information. The Beverly Kees Educator Award is named in honor of the former SPJ NorCal Chapter president, who was killed in a tragic accident in December 2004.
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Lowell Bergman, Investigative Reporter
Best known for his landmark investigation of the tobacco industry (dramatized in the 1999 film “The Insider”), Bergman is an Emmy Award-winning reporter, producer and journalism consultant who has epitomized the values of freedom of information throughout a career that has spanned more than 30 years. He co-founded the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting in 1977, and the following year helped launch “20/20” for ABC News. He spent 14 years as a producer for CBS’s “60 Minutes” and has produced and worked on numerous films for Frontline, including “Hunting bin Laden” and “Blackout,” a 2001 exploration of the California energy crisis. His reporting on workplace safety for the New York Times was recognized with a 2004 Pulitzer Prize in the Public Service category. He is currently a visiting professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The world lost Beverly Kees in a tragic accident on Dec. 10, 2004, but during her life she made it her mission to educate and support journalists in every situation. She began her journalistic career as an editor in the Midwest, as later as program director of the Freedom Forum’s Pacific Coast Center, where she organized seminars for reporters and First Amendment advocates. At the time of her death, Kees was a journalism instructor at San Francisco State University and immediate past president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. She was not just a supporter, but an advocate and ally of the chapter’s Freedom of Information Committee. In her memory, the FOI Committee is renaming its James Madison Educator Award after her in perpetuity.
Holt gained national prominence during her 16 years (1982-1998) as book editor and critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Throughout her career, and especially as the author of the Internet column “Holt Uncensored,” Holt has been a persistent advocate for free speech and freedom of information. Whether criticizing media consolidation, chain bookstores or the Patriot Act, her advocacy has always focused on the sanctity of the building blocks of freedom of information: the writer, the reader and the independent bookstore.
North Coast Journal
The Journal is recognized for its efforts to unseal grand jury transcripts from a high profile investigation of a Fortuna City Council member who was accused of covering up a conflict of interest regarding a real estate deal she personally represented. Its investigation exposed a local political scandal. The Journal devoted considerable amounts of time, effort and money to open up records they knew were legally open to inspection no small burden for a community paper.
Santa Cruz Sentinel
The Santa Cruz Sentinel continuously keeps the First Amendment in front of its readers through its “As We See It” editorials, written by Editor in Chief Tom Honig and Managing Editor Don Miller. The column has celebrated World Press Freedom Day and the passage of Proposition 59, and criticized both the media for its lack of coverage and the government for its lack of openness. In all cases, the Sentinel doesn’t just editorialize, but educates its readers with facts and the context necessary to understand the importance of freedom of information.
Thomas Peele (Contra Costa Times)
Peele conceived and coordinated an ambitious Contra Costa Times investigation of local government compliance with the California Public Record Act. The paper tested 86 public agencies and over 35 police departments, discovering that most officials did not grant immediate access to the records as provided by law. The Times’ report, “Open Records, Closed Doors,” led to a public forum organized by the paper in August under Peele’s leadership. Peele also writes a monthly column focusing on open government.
Tom Vacar (KTVU Channel 2)
Vacar made extensive use of federal Freedom of Information Act requests to the Transportation Safety Administration to conduct an 18-month investigation into airport security breaches. Vacar learned that several major U.S. airports had elevated breach rates, and more shockingly, that the TSA does not systematically collect data on breaches. The requests were met with strong resistance from the TSA and required several appeals, and the investigation revealed a concerted effort by the agency to conceal its mistakes. Vacar’s broadcasts focused heavily on his FOIA battle and the TSA’s attempts to stonewall the investigation.
Olson is recognized for his wide range of First Amendment and FOI legal work, including representing the Contra Costa Times in its successful lawsuit to force the City of Oakland to release salary information. The case, which is on appeal, has advanced the cause of openness in local government finances. He also sued the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), as lawyer for the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC). The CalPERS case, which Olson and his firm handled pro bono, resulted in a favorable settlement in which CalPERS agreed to disclose the management fees it pays to venture capital firms.
The Tribune is recognized for its four-part series, “Missing the Target: A flawed plan to protect the homeland.” Staff writers Michele Marcucci, Sean Holstege, and Ian Hoffman produced a detailed account of anti-terrorism funds obtained as grants from the Department of Homeland Security, showing waste, inequity and lack of planning. Using information obtained under the California Public Records Act, the trio showed that small counties get as much as 10 times the per capita funding as large ones, and that no one has figured out which sites are most worthy of protection.
Associated Press, Northern California/Northern Nevada Bureau
The local bureau of the Associated Press receives this award in recognition of its body of reporting using the California Public Records Act, and for making a special effort to train all correspondents in freedom of information laws. In 2004, reporters Kim Curtis and Bob Porterfield spent months requesting data from California prisons and county jails for their story package on excessive telephone charges for inmates. Their data was made available to the public through a special AP Web site.
Loretta Lynch (California Public Utilities Commission)
In an agency typically known for its secrecy and lack of accountability, Lynch was a persistent advocate for openness during her term as a commissioner. She often fought for the release of commission documents that other commissioners wanted to keep secret, and frequently went out of her way to ensure that reporters got the information they needed, including calling reporters instead of waiting for them to call her.
Donna Hall (San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force)
Hall retired last year after half a decade of service as the administrator of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. The task force has become the most forceful and consistent advocate for open government within City Hall. Hall’s care, dedication and professionalism were instrumental in educating officials and civil servants about the public’s right to know, and in getting agencies to release documents and open up meetings, often preventing situations from becoming serious problems or violations of law.
Kevin De Liban and Oliver Luby (San Francisco Ethics Commission)
De Liban and Luby are being recognized for risking their jobs by filing a complaint with San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. Their complaint contested an order by the Ethics Commission’s deputy director to destroy a document sent to the commission inadvertently which raised questions about the propriety of financial transactions by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s campaign committee. While no violation of law was found, the release of the information precipitated a scandal that prompted the campaign to retract the transactions and led to the resignation of the Ethics Commission’s director.