Friday, October 05, 2007

Chamberlin event at Iowa State University

Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief of The Associated Press.
Chuck Raasch, national political correspondent and columnist, Gannett News Service.

I spent part of Tuesday and all Wednesday on the campus of Iowa State University, where the Greenlee School of Journalism hosted its inaugural Chamberlin Lecture.

In addition to visiting with students individually and in classes, I had the honor of introducing the guest speakers, Sandy Johnson and Chuck Raasch, a Washington-based husband-wife team.

Sandy Johnson is Associated Press bureau chief in Washington, and Chuck Raasch is national political correspondent and columnist for Gannett News Service, serving the nation’s top-circulation newspaper chain.

Of the 1,500 daily newspapers in the United States, precious few – these days, make it none -- have the resources to place their own reporters in Washington, New York and key places around the nation and the world.

Instead, our newspapers subscribe to wire services. That’s where the speakers come in.

Their news decisions and their reports go out hundreds of newspapers, and thus hundreds of thousands of readers. They have tremendous influence over what information Americans receive and thus, to a degree, the shape of public opinion.

As an editor, working in the Heartland, I have to trust The AP. I’m sure that the Gannett editors feel likewise about The AP and Gannett News Service. Are they reporting the news fairly and objectively? Are they pursuing the right stories? Are they missing anything? We are effectively powerless, from hundreds of miles away, to fact-check and verify their work.

Chuck and Sandy are graduates of South Dakota State University.

They are married – to each other – and have been so for 28 years. That’s a remarkable achievement, especially considering they are not at liberty to always share what they are doing or planning. They have two college-age sons, both outstanding students, who are not on track to follow their parents’ career choice.

Chuck Raasch has filed bylines from 49 states – every state but Hawaii. Chuck has also filed from four continents.

If the Guiness Book of Records keeps track of these things, Chuck might claim the one-day record for experiencing widest temperature variance. While reporting for USA Today, he moved from one assignment -- Yuma, Ariz., at 85 degrees -- to International Falls, Minn., where it was 35 below zero. He wasn’t anticipating the Minnesota trip, as his expense report for $350 in warm clothing would attest.

A native of South Dakota, Raasch has covered political campaigns since 1978. He is a former Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

Let’s hit the "back" button. It’s the year 2000, and it’s a tense and crazy and historic election night. It appears that George Bush has pulled out a close decision over Al Gore for the U.S. presidency. The projection is based on the projections from Florida, where the vote differences in some precincts are incredibly small.

So, the TV networks, which earlier that evening had to rescind some of their “calls,” are declaring Bush the winner. Newspaper editors across the country, bumping against their deadlines, are watching that on TV, but there is a problem. The AP is not calling the election for Bush. Where is the AP story declaring Bush the winner? What’s the problem?

The problem is Sandy Johnson, whose duties as bureau chief for The Associated Press in Washington include deciding how the major election story is written.

Against great pressure from editors and news directors all over the country, she refuses to call the Bush-Gore race. Based on what she knows about Florida voting trends, she is not convinced that Bush has won the state – and thus the presidency.

It would have been easy for her to follow and pack and figure, hey, if we’re wrong, at least we ALL were wrong.

Though she confuses and angers many of her member editors – including me – she sticks to what she thought was right. And she was right. The election was not decided that night. It took a Supreme Court decision to settle the matter.

Her members got over it. The Associated Press Managing Editors subsequently presented her with the group’s presidential award for her courage and judgment.

It was a pleasure for me to meet and introduce Sandy and Chuck during our time at ISU. Sandy had to return to Washington for an editors convention immediately after her remarks, but Chuck stayed Wednesday and spoke to journalism classes and individual students.

No comments: