March 28, 2007

TIME OUT: Eat It

Today, I ate it.

At The Ledger, my editor and I worked on a HUGE story. At the least, it would've affected the Board of Trustees election April 3. At the most, it could've destroyed a man's life.

But we had to
kill it.

No, no one censored us this time or pressured us into killing the story. It’s not that we don't believe the source; we simply could not triangulate the source's information in the time we had to work the story.

We just didn't have the time to delve as deep into these people's lives that the story requires for us to verify the incredible allegations.

Allegations. God, how many times in the past year have I written that word?

This is a new experience for me. I've never had to kill a story because I couldn’t verify the information or because I didn't have the documentation.

Unfortunately, I know exactly where the story went wrong …



March 20, 2007

Sunshine Week: The Sun shines on JCCC

Jack "Miles" Ventimiglia, editor of The Johnson County Sun, wrote an editorial this week about my reporting efforts at JCCC:

Students commit necessary acts of journalism at college

by Jack "Miles" Ventimiglia, editor

Student journalists at Johnson County Community College deserve credit from the community for the fine work they produced starting about this time last year and continuing into this year.
Miguel Morales, Kevin Mimms and Joshua Seiden led The Campus Ledger’s effort to tell the community about allegations against Johnson County Community College President Charles Carlsen. In so doing, they displayed qualities that make journalism vital in a democracy.
First, during Carlsen’s silver anniversary year, Morales learned that a female staff member had accused him of sexual harassment.
The ramifications loomed enormously.
If not true, a great leader recognized nationally at the community college level would have his honored name sullied for nothing.
But if true, then what?
Should a man who has done so much for the college have his name smeared on the verge of his retirement?
At least some college leaders would have let Carlsen retire quietly and thereby protected the reputation of the college and man in the hope that the whole thing would slink away, regardless of the damage he might have done. There is reason to believe that outgoing Trustee Elaine Perilla favored that approach, though she chooses to say nothing about what she knew and when.
A similar opinion might come from Carlsen’s many and loyal friends. Some believe Carlsen when he says he is not guilty of the allegations. And, perhaps, Carlsen is not guilty, though after Morales’ original report of harassment other women stepped forward to make similar allegations.
For student journalists at The Campus Ledger, just like for their peers in the profession, there would have been many and good reasons to just keep their mouths shut, thereby protecting Carlsen’s legacy as a great leader, keeping campus trustees who fund the newspaper happy, and keeping people who support Carlsen and the trustees happy.
Happy, happy, happy...
But spreading joy and covering up dirt is no more the job of a journalist’s than spreading doom and inventing scandal.
A journalist reports truth in whatever form.
The alternative to honest reporting, student journalists participating in a cover up, would have frightening ramifications for a democracy. These same students, and those like them, upon entering the profession would encounter far worse instances where a cover up might be easier than the truth n that President Nixon authorized burglars to break into the Democratic Party’s headquarters; that President Clinton had “sex” in the Oval Office, though perhaps he had a different definition for the word; and that the Bush administration, at best, used faulty intelligence as a basis for invading Iraq at a cost of tens of thousands of civilian and military lives.
The public needs to know about the failings of their leaders, whether presidents of nations or presidents of colleges, so that wrongs can be righted.
The Ledger staff acted in the highest traditions of responsible journalism to brush aside consideration for anything other than the truth by reporting the allegations against Carlsen.
The results run deeper than Carlsen’s resignation. The public learned that at least one college trustee may have known about the allegation two years before The Ledger’s report, but said nothing; all trustees are not informed when sexual harassment allegations are made; good reporting can lead to retaliation, which seems a plausible explanation for why trustees refused to allow The Ledger to print summer issues; and perhaps the most important outcome is that the women who felt harassed by Carlsen came forward to vent secret concerns and accept vindication.
In a democracy, good journalists, students or otherwise, do not exist to serve those in power, they exist to serve the public, and the student journalists at The Campus Ledger have acquitted themselves admirably as public servants.

March 15, 2007

Sunshine Week: Tao of GAO

Earlier this year I attended the National Press Foundation's An Introduction to Washington for College Journalists. There we visited several public institutions but my favorite by far was the Government Accountability Office or GAO.

If I had to work for the federal government, I would want to work at the GAO. These people bought and simultaneously smuggled radioactive materials across the Mexican and Canadian borders to exposed flaws in Homeland Security. They broke the law in order to test the law -- that's awesome!!

Watch a video about the GAO. Visit the GAO's media page to subscribe to its latest reports.






March 14, 2007

Sunshine Week: The Sun Session

This article was originally published in The Campus Ledger Feb. 8

Photo courtesy of the National Archives
President Richard Nixon meets with Elvis Presley in the Oval Office, Dec. 21, 1970. According to the National Archives, this photo is its most requested document. To find out what documents you can request from the National Archives visit http://www.archives.gov.

Accessing open records on campus

by Miguel M. Morales

How much will the new president get paid?
Where do tuition dollars go?
What documents can be requested from the college?
To answer these questions, The Campus Ledger will embark on a semester-long series examining state and federal open records acts.
As a Freedom of Information/Open Records primer the history of the Federal and Kansas Laws.

FOIA

In 1966, Donald Rumsfeld, then a young republican congressman from Illinois, co-sponsored the bill that became Freedom of Information Act.
President Lyndon Johnson signed FOIA into law that year. However, the very law Johnson signed into existence allows the public to read his signed objection to the law.
“Officials with in the government must be able to communicate with one another fully and frankly without publicity,” Johnson wrote.
The law initially did not provide penalties for violation, time limits for compliance or limit how much the government could charge for the information requested said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
A burglary at the Watergate hotel changed all that.
“You had this whole wave of scandals about abuse of power; you had an outcry from the American people and in the congress,” said Blanton.
In 1974, Congress overwhelmingly passed changes strengthening FOIA, Blanton said.
However believing he faced a threat to presidential powers, Gerald Ford vetoed the changes.
Congress overrode the veto.

KORA/KOMA

Kansas has two open records laws, Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) and Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA).
K.S.A. 45-201, enacted in 1957 addressed open records in Kansas until KORA was introduced in 1979 and became law in 1984.
According to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an organization working to ensure press freedom, the delay in adopting the KORA came from a debate on abortion records.
Since it was enacted, 47 provisions have been added to KORA.
Legislators introduced Kansas’ first open meetings statute in 1972, which became law in 1975. Unlike KORA, there have been few changes to the open meetings law.
Ordinarily, the Kansas Attorney General interprets both laws.

March 13, 2007

Sunshine Week: Sunflower Power!

The Student Press Law Center is writing a series of articles to celebrate Sunshine Week. The first article features my struggle reporting for The Campus Ledger at JCCC:

SUNSHINE WEEK: Student journalist fights for access at community college

Anonymous tip leads to big story, rejected open records requests

By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer
© 2007 Student Press Law Center

March 13, 2007

A citizen's right to know and journalists' rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

Student journalist Miguel Morales has reported stories that have rocked his community college’s foundations.

But after unearthing controversies by using open records requests and building trust with key whistleblowers, Morales said reporting on campus issues has only become tougher.

For the 39-year-old Morales, journalism was not his first pursuit in life. After spending about 10 years as a HIV outreach worker, Morales enrolled part-time at Johnson County Community College in Kansas in 2001 and set his sights on a career in journalism.

“Writing was the one thing I could always do,” he said.

In March 2005, Morales received an anonymous e-mail from someone who told him to examine attachments to the agenda of a recent board of trustees meeting. He did, but found nothing that seemed out of the ordinary.

Morales then received a tip and documentation from his anonymous source that documented that Charles Carlsen, the college’s president, had allegedly sexually harassed college administrator Teresa Lee since 2003. Lee alleged that Carlsen had touched her breast with his forearm and performed other acts that made her feel uncomfortable.

College officials had not responded to Lee’s complaints against Carlsen, the popular leader of a campus with a performing arts center that bears his name. Lee agreed to speak on the record for a story, understanding it could lead to her losing her job, Morales said.

While none of Lee’s coworkers could confirm her claims, Morales confronted Carlsen about the accusations. During an interview, he said that the president’s face said it all.

“He just turned red,” Morales said of Carlsen’s reaction when asked about the harassment allegations. Carlsen denied everything Lee alleged in the complaint.

Following the meeting with Carlsen, Mark Ferguson, the college’s attorney, confronted Morales about investigation, saying Lee’s accusations were not credible. “I felt he was intimidating me into not writing this story,” Morales said.

Despite the perceived threats, Morales continued to investigate and found another potential instance of unaddressed sexual harassment, which involved student employee Andrea Evans and her campus services department supervisors. After Evans shared documents she kept that detailed the harassment charges, Morales’ harassment story broadened.

After reporting for more than a year, The Campus Ledger published the results of Morales’ investigation on April 14, 2006. In two stories, he detailed the harassment claims involving the president and the campus services employees.

Less than a week later, Carlsen resigned from his post after 25 years as president. The college board of trustees launched an independent investigation into the matter. The campus services employees in the other alleged harassment case left the college.

“I have had two heart attacks, an angioplasty, and quintuple bypass surgery. It is apparent to me from the stress of the last two weeks that immediate retirement is the appropriate step to take,” Carlsen wrote in his resignation letter, dated Apr. 20, 2006.

After the stories were published, The Campus Ledger received another lead — this time from one of the former campus services managers. The former manager alleged that the college was improperly paying overtime to campus employees.

Along with reporter Kevin Mimms, the student journalists began looking into the matter, but because of the controversy surrounding Carlsen’s departure, administrators would tell little to Campus Ledger reporters, hesitant of further negative publicity, Morales said.

“It’s my story that’s not getting them the quotes that they need,” Morales said.

The two turned to using open records requests to get the information they needed — but found further road blocks.

“Denied left and right”

College officials declined open records requests for budget information that would show potential overtime violations because their letters were “poorly worded” and even criticized the reporters for using the Student Press Law Center’s state open records request letter generator, rather than authoring the open records letters themselves, Morales said.

“A request is a request whether it’s [from] a letter generator or if it’s written in crayon,” Morales said in an e-mail.

Morales recalled one instance where an administrator denied an open records request because “you’re going to write a story about it.”

“It got to the point last spring where they weren’t responding at all,” Morales said.

With an interim president still to be named and as the independent investigation into Lee’s alleged sexual harassment was scheduled to end in the June 2006, Morales and his staff asked the college’s publication board for permission to publish throughout the summer. The publication board approved the request, but it was soon overruled by the college board of trustees, which Morales said, “didn’t want to spend any more money” for a summer paper.

But Morales and Mimms would not let that stop them from chasing the story.

“We scraped up our money, found a printer and got donations from employees and students at the college, and published our own paper,” Morales said.

By July 2006, Morales and Mimms had reported in The Lexicon — the alternative paper they created — on the search for a new president and the results of the independent investigation confirming Carlsen’s harassment, which cost the college more than half a million dollars.

Today, Morales says many open records requests continue to be refused by administrators without clear reasoning, but he said the newspaper is “just collecting all our rejections” hoping to “integrate them into a story.”

“I think they just don't know what information citizens can request nor do they know what they can release,” Morales said. “So our information requests get denied as a precaution.”

Johnson County Community College spokeswoman Julie Haas said administrators understand which records are public under state law. She said the college has responded to every records request from Campus Ledger reporters.

“We responded to everything that I know of,” Haas said. “I want to know what it was that [Morales] perceives that we didn’t fulfill.”

While he has received some of the budget information requested, Morales said the data has been difficult to interpret.

“We asked for budget numbers. They’re not giving it to us electronically, they’re giving us [printed] spreadsheets,” Morales said. “It’s hard for us to manipulate the data.”

Morales would not clarify which documents or the sources of the data he is requesting for his ongoing investigation into alleged overtime violations, saying only that the college’s budget and documents related to it are a “treasure trove” of information.

“It didn’t really hit me”

Morales and The Campus Ledger staff’s efforts did not go unrecognized. At its convention held in August 2006, the Society of Professional Journalists awarded Morales and Campus Ledger staff with the First Amendment Award given to individuals and groups for efforts to preserve and strengthen the First Amendment for their harassment story.

Morales said when he found out about the honor, he did not understand the magnitude of the award. He said he was unsure if he should even make the drive to Chicago to accept the award, but his instructors told him that it was “a big deal and [he] should really go.”

Even though college administrators are now more hesitant when a Ledger reporter makes an inquiry, Morales said he “wouldn’t do anything different” in his reporting of the harassment story. He said it is best to get to know the people in campus offices and use formal open records requests as a last resort.

“Be nice — know where document is,” Morales said. “Don't just slap the letter down on [the administrator’s] desk.”

Morales said he plans on graduating from Johnson County Community College at the end of the summer, and wants to complete his degree at the University of Kansas. Eventually, he said he would like to return to Johnson County Community College to teach journalism.

For Morales, whose name means “morals” in Spanish, he said he believes he “finally found my calling” in journalism.

“I let my ethics and integrity guide me,” he said.

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