National Press Club

Inaugural: Club President Kodjak wants to increase access to government information

January 14, 2019 | By Louise D. Walsh | ldwalsh@earthlink.net

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer administered the oath of office to new National Press Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak at an inaugural gala dinner Saturday.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer administered the oath of office to new National Press Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak at an inaugural gala dinner Saturday.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

National Press Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak told a soldout ballroom audience Saturday that she wants to widen the Club’s role protecting freedom of the press to include gaining greater access to government information so people can know what their government is doing.

“Any journalist who covers government knows that for years now, it’s become harder and harder to get any good information from our government and to find out what our public servants are doing,” said Kodjak, who was sworn in as the Club’s 112th president. “We can’t have representative democracy, government by the people” if they don’t know what’s happening.

Kodjak, a National Public Radio health policy correspondent, said she is expanding the Club's Press Freedom Team so it can speak out forcefully on freedom of information issues.

The goal, she said, is to “keep our government and other powerful institutions—and people—honest." When journalists do hard, sometimes boring, work reading budgets and digging through regulations, “we ask hard, intrusive questions, and we doubt the answers. We check the facts.”

A Club priority this year, she said, “is to locate and secure the freedom of freelance photographer Austin Tice,” who disappeared in Syria six years ago, having worked for The Washington Post and the McClatchy group.

The Club is also working with journalist Emilio Gutierrez’s attorney to ensure he remains in the United States after U.S. Immigration agents threatened to deport him. Gutierrez received the Club's John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award on behalf of his fellow journalists in Mexico.

“Last year alone, 53 journalists around the world were killed just for doing their jobs,” Kodjak said, “Four of them dying…in Annapolis when a gunman, angry about a story invaded their newsroom [Capitol Gazette] and shot everyone he could see.”

In remarks before administering the oath of office to Kodjak on her worn Italian dictionary, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer praised her selection as president, noting that she’d overcome childhood adversity, before giving a mini-tutorial on the First Amendment.

It “traces out a system of government,” he said, that is like a transmission belt. Freedom of religion is first because it’s “the freedom to think” and give voice to ideas. Rhetorically asking why freedom of the press comes next, Breyer said that the ideas you express can be “transmitted” to the press and distributed.

That system along, with the right to assemble and petition government, is “the only way government works.” However, it’s not only up to judges like him to enter high schools and explain it.

“It’s your job too,” he told the audience. “You’re part of something bigger. You don’t just do what you do, you tell people about it.”

The evening’s host, Associated Press editor Lisa Nicole Matthews, used playful, deft touches to move the program along, including an invented NPR quiz of “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” all about Kodjak.

NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep called Kodjak “a persistent reporter” who doesn’t give up and urged other journalists, especially now, “to never give up.”

Veteran political reporter and columnist Al Hunt described Kodjak as “fabulous at source cultivation,” while Patrick Corvington, who directs DC School Reform Now, said Kodjak “has the passion to be a fierce advocate for journalism but the necessary dispassion to be a journalist.”

Citing the “revelatory reporting” in Kodjak’s career, Nancy Barnes, NPR senior vice president of news and editorial director, noted how journalists rise in public esteem “when good journalism leads to better roads or schools, or health care, or blows a whistle on drug-pricing and insurance scams and predatory lending.”

She asked those honoring Kodjak “to also honor all the women of our business who have courageously persevered through all sorts of discrimination to serve journalism and the public with great distinction. You cannot overestimate all the battles they have fought.”

Outgoing Club President Andrea Edney said Kodjak “will defend against those who attack the messenger” and closed the event, one arm overhead, saying, “Long live the First Amendment!”