June 2 2011 12:00 AM

Through a public records request, we obtained 2,100 pages of catty, internal SPJ emails

Who watches the watchdogs*? Easy: They watch, snarl and bite at each other, ruthlessly.--- 

In San Diego, media outlets proudly continue the tradition of hounding colleagues and competitors. Last year, the San Diego News Network exposed shady bookkeeping at the Gay & Lesbian Times. The San Diego Reader, in turn, dogged SDNN until its demise. Here at CityBeat, we've zeroed in on the Reader. And voiceofsandiego.org. And the Watchdog Institute. And KPBS. And now we dig into the Society of Professional Journalists.

Through a state-level public-records request, I obtained 2,100 pages of internal SPJ emails dating back to January 2011. The emails include both communications among San Diego Chapter members and those on the national level.

How did I get the emails? It turns out that not every member of SPJ is a professional journalist: Jodi Cleesattle, a SPJ San Diego board member and regional SPJ director, is a former reporter who now works as a deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice. Perhaps unwisely, she used her government email account to coordinate SPJ activities, opening the emails up to the possibility of public inspection.

For the most part, the emails are dull administrative correspondence dealing with the regional spring conference and an awards competition. But there's also a fair amount of smack-talk about various media figures—including CityBeat and myself—as well as internal politics regarding local board members perceived as not pulling their weight. The emails also provide an inside view of recent journalism controversies. The records indicate that the national chapter took an interest in whether The Koala, the satirical UC San Diego student publication, had taken press freedoms too far. The emails also show how the controversy over the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement award, in light of Thomas' recent anti-Zionist remarks, turned into a personality conflict and led one ex-president to refer to the group as the "Society of Petty Journalists." (Click here to skip to the Thomas section.)

Perhaps what's most worthy of discussion is the fact that I was able to obtain the emails to begin with—and whether that represents a breach or failure on the organization's part to keep confidential emails confidential. It also raises the question of whether it's appropriate for a journalism organization to allow a government attorney to remain on the board, privy to the conversations of journalists, considering the oppositional role the media is supposed to have with the state.

That's the nut of it. What follows is the journalism-nerd breakdown of why I asked for the records, how I got them, what they contained and what SPJ had to say about it. Since this story is about how we communicate via email, I felt it made sense to conduct all the interviews via email.

* Gender neutral update to the famous Latin line, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?


Why I wanted the emails

How I obtained the emails 

A state attorney among reporters

What was in the emails

Notable emails:

- CityBeat's 'journalism'

- Jeff Light's a donkey

- Koala Nazis

- Helen Thomas hell

A few closing thoughts

Why I wanted the emails

Because I'm a mean-spirited, vindictive jerk bent on retribution. Well, some people will say that. Here's the back story:

This matter originated with an exchange between CityBeat's arts editor Kinsee Morlan and SPJ San Diego organizers over the lack of alt-weekly representation in SPJ's regional spring conference programming. Conference coordinator and SPJ-SD Vice President Christy Scannell accidentally forwarded Morlan an email containing an internal discussion in which Cleesattle called Morlan "obnoxious” and made a snide remark about my previous request to be included on a panel discussing the WikiLeaks controversy.

As the exchange continued, I noticed that in some instances, Cleesattle was receiving the emails through an official government email account.** So, in the spirit of WikiLeaks, I shot off a public-records request for her SPJ-related emails dating back two years.

Cleesattle's remark put her on my radar, but legitimate questions came to mind. As a government employee, how much time (and resources) was she spending on SPJ activities? Put under the microscope, would Cleesattle, a member of SPJ's national Freedom of Information Committee, take a liberal position on open records or fight to keep her emails private? Did the existence of emails on California DOJ servers give government attorneys the ability to read the emails of journalists? And, of course, I wanted to know what was being said about CityBeat behind our backs. Who wouldn't?

Actually, there was significant debate in our newsroom about whether to request these documents, what do with the documents and the final format. There was not consensus in the end and we invite readers to provide us feedback on how we handled this story.

** Update June 3, 2011: The way I initially phrased this made it seem like Cleesattle used her DOJ account to call Morlan "obnoxious," when, in fact, she was using a Gmail account for that particular remark. However, her DOJ account was cc'd throughout the string by Scannell and records show that Cleesattle was simultaneously discussing the issue with her colleagues through the DOJ account. I have edited accordingly.

How I obtained the emails

On April 8, I sent the California Department of Justice a request for all of Cleesattle's 2010 and 2011 emails related to the Society of Professional Journalists, including correspondence between Cleesattle and SPJ San Diego President Joe Guerin (an editor at the San Diego Daily Transcript) and Scannell. The DOJ initially denied the request, claiming that the records did not relate to the “conduct of the public's business,” comparing the emails to a “shopping list phoned from home” or a “letter to a public officer from a friend which is totally void of reference to governmental activities,” both of which would be protected from disclosure.

I challenged the comparison, since Cleesattle clearly uses her DOJ title when working with SPJ; combine that with her use of government resources and it sure looks like the public's business. The DOJ attorneys yielded on April 28. While they maintained that the emails were exempt from disclosure, they decided to release them in order to avoid “protracted debate or litigation.” They added that they would be unable to provide emails prior to Jan. 8, 2011, because the DOJ has a policy in which emails are only kept for 90 days.

The DOJ said there were more than 2,100 responsive pages and I would owe $210 for copies. Alternately, I could review the print-outs in the San Diego office. I pushed back, arguing that because the files are digital, only digital files would be compliant with my records request. On May 10, they mailed me a CD-ROM with the emails as two giant, unsearchable PDF documents and I decided that was good enough.

Cleesattle is a member of CalAware, California's top open-government organization and, as I mentioned above, a member of SPJ's national Freedom of Information Committee. I asked her whether she agreed with the DOJ's decision to release the emails. She writes:

I speak for myself as a proponent of open government… I believe that the emails in question do not fall within the definition of public records as they do not relate to government business. The issue does not come up often in this context, but the case law is clear that the mere fact that documents may be contained in a government file does not mean that they are public records if they are of a personal nature and do not relate to public business.

It should be noted that over the 90 days the emails cover, Cleesattle received and sent hundreds from her work email account, many during what would normally be considered work hours. In the wake of the public records request, we learned that she sent SPJ members a note requesting that they use only her private email. I asked Cleesattle whether having the emails on DOJ servers allows the government the opportunity to keep an eye on what SPJ and CalAware are doing.

“The DOJ has access to its computer system in the same manner that all private companies have access to their computer systems,” she writes. “The DOJ does not have a policy of routinely reviewing the emails of its thousands of employees.”

A state attorney among reporters  

In an email to Guerin, the local SPJ president, I characterized this as a confidentiality breach, since in many cases the emails were clearly private conversations among board members. After all, if I was able to access the emails, certainly the California DOJ would have the ability to lift the lid on SPJ at any time. I also questioned the wisdom of having a government attorney on the board. He disagreed:

As far as you receiving the emails, I do not think it is a "confidentiality breach," as the SPJ San Diego Chapter is not engaged in anything that would be considered confidential. Primarily we organize events to support local journalists.

I see no problem with having a government attorney on our board. The SPJ board does not set editorial policy or have influence over any news operations. Jodi Cleesattle is a former journalist who is actively involved in open records and transparency issues. Our bylaws allow a set number of non-journalists to serve on the board.

Posed the same question, Cleesattle defended herself, echoing Guerin's point that SPJ does not affect editorial content.

A member of SPJ for 23 years, Cleesattle has worked for a variety of newspapers and magazines and, when she first became an attorney, she focused on media law. Even within the legal community, she's continued to pursue writing, through a bar association news magazine and San Diego Lawyer magazine. She was also the local chapter president from 2007 to 2009. She writes:

I don't understand the premise of this question. Government attorneys participate in many professional, business and community organizations. There is no policy prohibiting such participation, and one would assume that these organizations benefit from their volunteers' efforts, whether they are government attorneys, school teachers, plumbers or anybody else…
The fact that I currently work for the state Attorney General's Office has no bearing on my service to either the San Diego SPJ board or the national SPJ board, and I am not aware of any secret journalism issues that I should not be privy to based on my employment.
….My interest in journalism and commitment to promoting good journalism did not change when I decided to accept employment with the Attorney General's Office. I assume the same is true of SPJ board members and members who have left journalism for positions in public relations or as public information officers.

In the past, Cleesattle has written letters stating SPJ's position on a variety of freedom-of-information issues, including state court policy on open records. She actually helped explain the rules to me in one case where the San Diego County Superior Court was stalling one of my requests; she explained she was not assisting me as a deputy attorney general, though she did use her DOJ address.

Joe Skeel, SPJ's national executive director, did not respond to a question about the separation of state and a free press, except to point out that SPJ's bylaws allow for former journalists to remain on the board once they have left the field. 

What was in the emails

First, a caveat: The 2,100 pages are hardly a reliable, exhaustive catalog of facts. The emails only show the sides of the story recorded by Cleesattle's government email account and can only tell us what the writers felt, not what is always true. They reveal the culture and attitude behind SPJ and bits and pieces of the negotiation and work that goes into keeping nonprofits active.

I'd estimate that three-quarters of the 2,100 pages are just reply threads, the same conversations repeated over and over again. Most of these threads deal with the routine administrative tedium of running a nonprofit: Who's going to sit on the panels at the regional conference, who's going to judge the contest, who's going to pack gift baskets, why didn't more board members show up to honor City Councilmember Donna Frye at the Sunshine Award event?

Most of the emails are between Scannell and Cleesattle and reveal a close relationship between the two, who are increasingly frustrated by journalists who don't live up the duo's expectations. In other words, they spend a lot of time ripping on other reporters. The two gossiped about the financial hardships of one reporter and the reluctance of another to hire a babysitter in order to attend an event. One board member was described as a “big time whiner” with a “screw loose,” who needed to be "booted" from the board.

"I'd really enjoy being president next term if Joe wants to step down but I'm not sure I can lead a board who is so apathetic," Scannell wrote in one email (read the email). "It's just not fun having to constantly cajole people."

Scannell opted not to respond publicly to my questions about the emails, but Cleesattle challenged my characterization of their comments as disparaging:

With respect to ‘disparaging' emails, I disagree with your assessment of any comments I may have made. But, in any event, I would not find it surprising that members of a nonprofit board, or a government agency, or any other group, would occasionally express their frustration or impatience while working with other members of the group or organizing activities and the like. In my opinion, the fact that individuals may express their frustrations to their friends and colleagues does not demonstrate a character flaw, but a normal human trait.

The emails also include in-depth and heated debate over a number of issues, many of which were already hashed out publicly on blogs and Facebook.

Here's a selection of some of the most interesting emails exchanges:

CityBeat's 'journalism'

CityBeat was the subject of disparaging emails after I asked to be included in a panel on WikiLeaks, a subject I've localized for months:

This is Dave Maass, staff writer at San Diego CityBeat. I was very curious to see that you have a Wikileaks panel at your upcoming conference and I wasn't invited to participate. If you haven't followed our coverage, we've been dutifully researching every local connection in the Cablegate dump. We proved that a Russian politician lied about owning property in Carlsbad, revealed how a local energy company is capitalizing off anarchy in southern Italy, were the first to report on a cable focused on Rep. Darrell Issa's meetings with Lebanese Brazilians and analyzed a cable about Maria Shriver's heart-to-heart with Sonia Gandhi. I just haven't seen anything close coming from other publications. If it isn't too late, I would love to comment for the panel.

When Scannell told me that the topic of the panel had changed to Japan coverage, I thanked her and pressed no further. Here's the conversation that went on behind the scenes after Scannell forwarded my email to Cleesattle.

“…I'm really turned off by his presumptuous tone,” Scannell writes. “And I'm not a big fan of the ‘journalism' they do at CityBeat these days.”

“Very presumptuous, especially considering it's the opening session with the national SPJ president – i.e. bigger names,” Cleesattle responded. “Plus, the City Beat hipsters never even attempt to get involved with SPJ, although one nice young guy did enter the contest this year. (Along those lines, voiceofsandiego continues to be too good for us, except for Emily Alpert, who entered some of her education stories. She's great.)”

I presume this post won't raise their opinion of our newspaper. (It should be noted that Cleesattle also claimed in various emails that I demanded "got up in [their] grill" to be on the panel, which, in addition to SPJ President Hagit Limor, also featured Point Loma Nazarene's Journalism Program Director Dean Nelson. As for her comments about attempts to get involved, both CityBeat associate editor Kelly Davis and contributor Justin McLachlan entered stories—and won first-place awards—in the 2010 contest and I served as an SPJ mentor in 2010. But yes, I could've been more tactful in my email.)

Read the emails.

Jeff Light's a donkey

The emails also shine a light on the attitude those at the top of the news food chain take towards journalism groups.

Two Union-Tribune writers met with the U-T's editor, Jeff Light, to try to negotiate some kind of sponsorship deal for the SPJ chapter's regional conference. U-T writer Lori Weisberg writes in an email to Scannell:

[We] met with Jeff Light Friday, and we barely got started on our presentation when he basically told us that getting exposure for the U-T during the conference is not going to be enough to loosen the purse strings here. What we settled on is getting $1,000 to pay the way for journalists here to go to the conference. Truthfully, I doubt they'd pay to go on their own, so if we can get 10 people to go on the U-T's dime, that'll be helpful. I know there's not that option in the fundraising letter but it's the best we're going to get.

Then at the end, he lectured us on the wisdom of merging the Press club and SPJ chapters, cuz it doesn't make sense to have so many local journalism groups…

Read the emails.

Scannell forwarded the email to Cleesattle with the note, “What an effing jerk.”

To which Cleesattle responded, “Wow, what an ass! Wait, I gave up swearing for Lent. What a donkey!”

To be fair, these two are hardly the only people in the city who think Light's an ass. Though, to be fair to Light, there are several journalism organizations in San Diego.

Koala Nazis

In February, UCSD's boundary-pushing satirical publication The Koala kicked off national controversy when it published a sloppily Photoshopped image of a penis next to the face of a student leader who voted to cut the magazine's funding. Eventually, the story made it to Scott Leadingham, SPJ's Director of Communications and editor of SPJ's Quill magazine, who contacted Cleesattle over the "particularly egregious use of student media press freedom." Cleesattle said she was surprised that UCSD continues to fund The Koala.

Read the emails.

She writes:

The paper is constantly causing controversy with its nastiness. Sadly, the students who publish the paper don't seem to understand what satire and humor is. They seem to think that using bucketloads of profanity and pornography and using over-the-top insults equals humor... Some of the content reads like some kind of weird Penthouse Forum for skinhead Nazis. I'll point out, though, that I don't think the student staffers are actually racist/misogynistic/etc.; I think they're just so juvenile that they think it's fun to get attention by saying racist/misogynistic/etc. stuff.
The Nazi line greatly entertained Skeel, the SPJ executive director, who responded that it made his day. That seemed to be the end of the issue.

Helen Thomas hell

In January, the national SPJ board voted, via conference call, to retire the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement after the White House correspondent made remarks calling for Israeli withdrawal from Palestine. Skeel detailed the contentious process in a long blog post, but shortly after it went online, Cleesattle, who had defended Thomas, called bullshit.

Cleesattle's complaint was that the smaller executive board had a long, in-depth debate on the issue and then voted to put the matter before the whole board, which did not have that same opportunity.

"...I accept the current outcome, although I disagree with it personally," she writes to Skeel and Limor. "But I do think we as an organization are being disingenuous if we tell ourselves that the full board had a full and thoughtful discussion of this issue. We did not."

Read the email. She later posted many of the same thoughts in an extended comment on Skeel's blog.

A few weeks later, the Thomas controversy reignited when Michael Koretzky, the South Florida SPJ president and director of the NYC11 college media convention, announced that Thomas would be the keynote speaker. She would be interviewed on a variety of issues, including the retiring of the award, by Christine Tatum of Media Salad.

This set off a battle between two ex-SPJ presidents: Tatum (2006-07) and Kevin Smith (2009-2010), currently a journalism instructor at James Madison University.

Smith wrote to Koretzky:

I'm going to speak candidly here with regards to this Thomas event. It comes as no surprise to anyone on this board that this CMA event will be nothing more than the latest stop on Christie Tatum's tour to restore Helen Thomas' name to the lifetime achievement award. This isn't even a good attempt at a veil. Tatum has been relentless in her condemnations of this board and you are correct, she has made no attempt to hide her unabashed love and respect for Thomas.

Smith demanded that someone who voted in favor of retiring the award be given equal access or, even, replace Tatum at the event. Smith argued that Thomas needed to be grilled about her ethics.
Otherwise this interview is a farce and serves no purpose other than to allow Tatum to continue to muster support for her campaign to restore the name. By not allowing current board members on either side of this issue to be active participants in this interview, I'm afraid it has no stock or value in my eyes.

Then Smith went after Tatum personally:

Tatum has no respect for this current board and believes she is singularly better in her wisdom than the collective minds of the current members. This doesn't surprise me as I served on the board under her presidency and she had little regard for that board and its members who didn't see things her way.
Read the email.

Tatum fired back, characterizing comments by her opponents on the national board as "offensive and highly ill-informed." She pointed out that her company would be sponsoring Thomas' travel expenses and that the interview would be wide-ranging, with a 20-minute Q&A portion where critics would have an opportunity to ask pointed questions. Tatum writes:
But really. If I'm going to put on the hat I often wear that makes me a person who gives a rip about this organization, I must say that a good deal of the reaction that has come from the national board (oh, heck, primarily from Kevin -- although Hagit's comments sure were clueless) has made this look much more like the Society of Petty Journalists. That NO ONE contacted me before they commenced their trap-flapping -- which they based entirely on e-mail traffic and a provocative description of the program that is posted online -- is, apparently, how far too many people on the board roll these days.

Here's to hoping they do their day jobs with greater commitments to accuracy and fairness.

Read the email.

The exchanges didn't go over well with other board members, at least based on what's available in these public records.

For example, here's the truncated correspondence between Cleesattle and regional director Dana Neuts of VirtuallyYourz.com:

Neuts: [I]s SPJ becoming more challenging these days? "Can't we all just get along?" Wow, I know that's naive but this email infighting and back biting is driving me crazy.

Cleesattle: It's completely out of control. I was out of the office yesterday at a hearing in LA. I come back to find my email completely clogged with a Kevin Smith/Ray Hanania/Michael Koretzky pissing contest. Geez Louise... I mean, I disagreed with the Helen Thomas decision and stated my views. But I never called anybody any names, questioned their motives, dragged in back stories or bombarded people with non stop emails.

Neuts: ... I honestly don't know that I want to deal with SPJ any more. I love being a RD, but this year has been a ***** compared to last year...we've spent more time on minutia than we need to and this email bickering is childish. I have NO desire to further my SPJ career beyond RD. This has definitely taken the fun out of it. It is time to move on.

Cleesattle: ... after reviewing all this email dreck, I started having second thoughts, too. I don't have higher SPJ aspirations, and I'm just an RD because they asked me to do it and I thought it would be fun. It is fun, but this recent stuff has been ridiculous... I kind of wish Hagit would say to the board, you know what, we didn't handle this perfectly (we weren't evil dictators, either, though), but we're moving on and using our best efforts to do better in the future in terms of decision making procedures.

Read the email

A few closing thoughts

I have decided not to publish the entire collection of emails. I have a few reasons. First and foremost, they aren't particularly user-friendly. The fact the emails are not searchable makes it prohibitively labor intensive to dig through and impossible to redact without a staff of full-time censors. And, yes, there are sensitive details I would redact, including passwords to the awards entry web site and personal details regarding certain journalists. I don't particularly want to expose the insults directed at individual reporters who, in my opinion, did not deserve them and aren't public enough figures to justify it. I have, however, provided a copy of the document to local SPJ board president Joe Guerin as the organization elects its new board members this month.

I'd also like to express one of my own observations: Throughout the emails, I found Cleesattle and Scannell to exhibit a pretty poor attitude towards other local reporters, but at the same time, I came to admire their passion and dedication and, especially in Cleesattle's case, her reasoning on a variety of journalistic issues, including the Thomas controversy.

One thing that stuck out for me while combing through these emails was how few staff reporters were involved in the most heated debates and organizational projects. Cleesattle isn't a reporter anymore, and Scannell works on a freelance basis and much of her business seems to be outside of journalism, and yet their biggest feuds were with staff reporters and editors over how much time and money they were able to commit to the cause. In the Thomas debate, Smith is a professor and Tatum runs a "marketing intelligence firm," while Neuts' VirtuallyYourz.net also specializes in marketing. In fact, the national board now seems made up more by professors and media-relations specialists than actual professional journalists. I'm not exactly sure what to make of this, so I'll open that to discussion.

Finally, I'd like to acknowledge that if you cracked open CityBeat's email servers, you'd find just as much sniping and smack-talk, not only toward other publications, but between ourselves. I won't deny it: As professional journalists go, we're probably just as petty as everyone else.


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