National Press Club

Press Club to Explore How Newspaper Unearthed Photographer's Double Life as FBI Informant

September 23, 2013 | By John M. Donnelly |

Ernest Withers was an iconic photographer of the civil rights movement who was granted close access to Martin Luther King Jr. and other movement leaders in order to capture their images for posterity.

At the same time, it turns out, Withers was spying on King and his colleagues for the FBI.

The NPC's Freedom of the Press and Young Members Committees are planning a panel discussion exploring how a mid-size city newspaper was able to dig up this extraordinary story. The event, called "Double Exposure," is designed to bring to life how the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis used a precedent-setting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit -- and years of reporting -- to piece together the facts about Withers.

The panel is scheduled for Oct. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the National Press Club in the Lisagor Room. Admission is free for National Press Club members and $5 for non-members. Register here.

The event has particular resonance today. It comes just weeks after the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and on the heels of recent news about the government's sweeping domestic surveillance operations. The discussion hopes to highlight the challenges public-affairs journalism faces as news organizations’ business models are under stress. And the panelists plan to shed light not only on the government's past surveillance practices but also on FOIA and the public's right to know what its government is up to.

Panelists will include:

  • Marc Perrusquia, reporter for the Commercial Appeal
  • David Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author on the civil rights movement
  • Mizell Stewart III, vice president for newspaper content at The E.W. Scripps Company
  • David M. Giles, vice president and deputy general counsel at The E.W. Scripps Company
  • Miriam M. Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services for the National Archives and Records Administration
  • John F. Fox, Jr., PhD, historian of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • (moderator) Charles D. Tobin, attorney at the law firm of Holland & Knight LLP