‘Do YOU feel safer in the dark?’

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Tom Henderson is the managing editor of a rural weekly, The Polk County Itemizer-Observer, founded in 1875, in Dallas, Ore. (population, 14,000). With a circulation of 8,000, the paper’s news staff has two reporters and a photographer. Henderson is also the high-energy president of the Greater Oregon Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the first rural weekly journalist on the board, let alone president.

As part of a sustained effort to raise public awareness of the importance of the First Amendment in a time of unprecedented government secrecy in implementing the Patriot Act and other homeland security measures, Henderson is leading an SPJ campaign titled, “Do YOU Feel Safer in the Dark?” through posters and mailings distributed at colleges; op-ed pieces; and speeches at civic meetings and churches. Proceeds from sales of the campaign T-shirt help to finance the drive.

Henderson is also engaged in a long-term project that can and should be replicated in other states. Student journalists often battle for their First Amendment free-press rights with principals and school boards. Oregon’s SPJ gives them support and advice, along with lobbying the state legislature for a bill that will liberate journalists from the 1988 Supreme Court Hazelwood decision that undercut the previous Magna Carta of student rights, the 1969 Tinker decision.

Henderson, however, felt that a continuing mentoring program for student journalists throughout the state would do even more to strengthen their knowledge of and commitment to the First Amendment. He sent letters to newspapers asking for mentor volunteers, and letters to high school newspaper faculty advisers to inform student journalists of the program.

He recruited at workshops around the state; and at Fall Press Day for high school journalists at Oregon State University in October, Henderson set up a table. As he puts it, “I acted as a barker” to attract possible enlistees. He signed up 41 students.

Henderson also found reporters, editors, photo editors and copy editors willing to be mentors. Matching the professionals with some of the next generation of day-job journalists, they communicate through e-mails, phone calls and letters. The students, Henderson notes, “can get feedback on their writing; career and education advice; answers to First Amendment and other legal questions; and support in censorship battles with principals and school boards.”

While attempts are made to find mentors from students’ hometowns or nearby areas, the program has also welcomed mentors from as far away as The Boston Globe. Also joining is a senior writer for Communications Workers of America, who could be useful in honing students’ negotiations skills.

As for increasing the number of students to be mentored, “the key,” Henderson tells me, “seems to be persistence. High schoolers are rather shy. So professionals need to be diligent in drawing them out of their shells. Clarice Keating, one of our Oregon SPJ board members, is following up with the professionals to make sure they keep letting their students know they are available.”

SPJ chapters around the country have become interested in the “Do YOU Feel Safer in the Dark?” campaign, and chapters from Florida to Chicago have ordered posters with their own logos and contact information. I will be checking with Tom Henderson to see if journalism organizations and newspapers around the country set up their own mentoring programs. They could not only bring more committed youngsters into the profession but also, by enlivening student newspapers, get more of the young in the habit of reading newspapers.

Henderson is also confronting SPJ chapters around the country. “Most people,” he wrote for the Oregon SPJ newsletter, “know the NEA represents teachers and the AMA represents physicians. Why do so few people outside the press know about SPJ? We are the largest professional journalism organization in the world.” While some feel SPJ only crosses journalists’ radars “when it comes time for awards or workshops, we are making noise in Oregon! Please lend your voice. Get involved. There’s plenty of work to go around. We are the children of the First Amendment. If we don’t defend the freedom of the press and government, who will?” And if we don’t mentor journalists to come, who will? (Henderson’s e-mail address at the Itemizer-Observer is thenderson@eaglenewspapers.com).

In a sermon at an Oregon church, Henderson quoted from a joint resolution in the early 20th century by the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America: “National security is guarded more through freedom and constructive criticism than through the silence of conformity and fear.”

The “Do YOU Feel Safer in the Dark?” poster says: “The greatest threat to our freedom is our own fear.”

Published with the permission of Nat Hentoff. Originally posted on the Editor & Publisher Web site on Dec. 1. Hentoff writes for The Village Voice in New York and contributes to The Washington Times.

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