Behind closed doors

August 03, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Michele Salcedo, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, is taking some heat from a decision yesterday to forbid live tweeting of the organization's board meeting. As one commenter at writes, "We are a journalism organization. We should be committed to openness."

I'm not entirely sure.

For several years I was a member of the board of the American Copy Editors Society, four of them as president. In our board meetings we tried out ideas, most of which came to nothing. We had open disagreements about policy. We wasted a fair amount of time in badinage. And, as I suspect is that case with many board meetings, only a fraction of the discussion would have been of much interest to report on.

And had there been minute-by-minute tweeting of the proceedings, it would have severely inhibited discussion.

That was the consequence during a period when The Sun experimented with putting video of the afternoon news meeting online.* It was painful. The presenting editors played for the audience (awkwardly), and no one could speak frankly about anything. After it became clear that most people, being sane, had no interest in our news meeting and there was no online audience that amounted to anything, the experiment was quietly shelved.

You may also recall that one of the first decisions of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was to close the proceedings to the public and forbid the delegates to discuss the proceedings with outsiders. Only then could they have open debate without public pressure.

The reason to have a board is to select representatives to discuss and agree on policy in a way that would be too time-consuming and inefficient in a plenary of the membership. Minute-by-minute reporting would tend to turn a board meeting into something like a plenary.

At the same time, the values of openness and transparency do deserve attention. A board that isolates itself, not inviting members' comments and not reporting thoroughly on its decisions and the reasons behind them, does not serve its organization well.

It's regrettable that Ms. Salcedo's justification of the decision to close the meeting was a narrow, tone-deaf, and legalistic "we’re not a government entity" and "we’re not required to be open to the public." The public, in this case, is the membership of her own organization. Somewhere a balance might have been struck.

*For civilians, the afternoon news meeting is a show-and-tell session in which the various departments offer up their crop of stories for consideration for Page One. Since most of the articles are not yet written at the time of the meeting, and editors are reluctant to buy on spec, the actual Page One decisions are made some hours later, at an informal meeting of the top editors.

These informal meetings have the benefit of a candor seldom displayed at the afternoon meeting, much less to the public. One one occasion, a managing editor, lifting his head from a text over which he had been meditating for some time, asked, "Is this in some kind of code?"

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