Freeing the press

Longtime media crusaders and students battling censorship honored by the Society of Professional Journalists with James Madison Awards in 2009
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Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award

ROBERT PORTERFIELD

Bob Porterfield is a shit-disturber, an old-fashioned investigative reporter who has no favorites, no sacred cows, and no fear of offending anyone. Since his first story — a profile of a YMCA social program published in Eugene, Ore.'s The Register-Guard in 1959, when he was 15 — Porterfield has had ink in his veins. He's shared two Pulitzer Prizes (first for an Anchorage Daily News report on the Teamsters Union in 1975 and then for a series on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for The Boston Globe), won more than two dozen other prizes and worked on a long list of major investigative projects.

He has become something of an expert in computer-assisted reporting and information systems — but is still a down-to-earth guy who never forgot the value of traditional, hands-on digging. Back in 1986, he was on a team at Newsday looking into the federal Synfuels Corp., a scandal-plagued agency that was shut down in the wake of his stories.

"I remember once we were looking for property records on a Synfuels Corp. project linked to [former CIA Director) Bill Casey," he told me. "I wound up going down to Plymouth, N.C., (population 4,000), and I found this musty old office with two older women sitting there, knitting. There was no index book, nothing computerized. But when I explained what I was looking for, one of the women remembered the parcel of land I was talking about and pulled out the exact documents for me."

Porterfield has devoted a tremendous amount of time to teaching and mentoring, showing young reporters how to use public records to find stories. "I'm glad to see [President Obama's] new directive on openness, but I hope it trickles down to the independent agencies," he said. "Because there's been way, way too much secrecy." (Tim Redmond)

Beverly Kees Educator Award

ALAN GIBSON

Alan Gibson is reclaiming the Founding Fathers from conservatives with

his recent book Understanding the Founding: The Crucial Questions (University Press of Kansas, 2007). It examines the progressive ideals that guided early American political thought.

"The Founding Fathers are often captured by conservatives," Gibson told the Guardian. "But there is no clear line of legacy. It is much more complex than that. Conservative restoration politics are dangerous and not historically accurate."

As an undergraduate, Gibson cultivated an interest in issues of separation of church and state, which led to doctoral studies on James Madison, the namesake of the Society of Professional Journalists' annual Freedom of Information awards. "Madison was the most progressive of all [the Founding Fathers] when it comes to freedom of the press," Gibson said. "He helped develop the idea that American government should be responsive to public opinion, and the role of newspapers was to make sure that an authentic public opinion was set forth." Gibson, a political science professor at California State University-Chico, lectures at various colleges across the country. Understanding the Founding will be published in paperback later this year.