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Barbara Lombardo of Saratoga Springs, NY, is a journalism adjunct at University at Albany and retired executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Protecting sources protects democracy

The press is the only profes¬sion specifically mentioned in the Constitution.
The First Amendment reads: “Con¬gress shall make no law respect¬ing an establish¬ment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
But the First Amendment is not about protecting the press as a profession or a business.
It’s about protecting democra¬cy.
A serious threat to that free¬dom is looming on a federal level. The partial cure would be a feder¬al shield law — endorsed by all the presidential candidates, but not the current president — that would protect journalists from absurd punishments for refusing to reveal confidential sources. Such laws already exist in one form or another in almost every state.
The call for a federal shield law is revving up because a federal judge has ordered a former reporter named Toni Locy to reveal her sources or pay a fine that, in two weeks’ time, would escalate to $5,000 a day. And he ordered that every cent must come out of her own pocket, with no reimbursement from an employer, family, supporters, no one.
The fine is on hold while a fed¬eral appeals court considers what to do about it.
All of this revolves around a civil lawsuit against the Justice Department by a man named by the federal government as a “person of interest” in the fatal Anthrax attacks that jarred the nation after 9/11. The man claims that Justice Department and FBI leaks ruined his reputation. The Justice Department wants to know who gave Locy the man’s name.
The case is troubling for sever¬al reasons:
ä Prior to Locy’s article, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on national TV named the man as a “person of interest” in the Anthrax investigation.
ä The judge refused to accept that five years after writing her story she honestly couldn’t remember which of her many sources said what.
ä The sources’ identities are irrelevant to the lawsuit that prompted this nightmare.
ä The chilling effect on news gathering, should a judge be allowed to coerce a reporter by issuing a decree tantamount to personal financial devastation.
Locy’s story for USA Today focused on the weakness of the government’s case against the man two years into its investiga¬tion.
If anyone has some explaining to do, it’s the federal government, which has still neither charged nor cleared this man.
Beverley Lumpkin summed up the issue well in her blog on, the Project on Govern¬ment Oversight: “This is really a subject of central importance to all who care about a thriving democracy.”
The appeals court should reject the absurd and excessive ruling of the federal judge. And the next president, Republican or Democ¬rat, should press for a federal shield law to protect reporters and their confidential sources.

Barbara Lombardo is manag¬ing editor of The Saratogian. Her column is published Saturdays in the Life section and under the Fresh Ink blog at www.sarato¬ E-mail her at blombar¬

Monday, May 19, 2008

State Park Deserves Fixup

Whether or not you like the new look planned for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, you've got to agree that SPAC and the entire Saratoga Spa State Park needs the state money finally being invested in the place. The state park system suffered from cutbacks for years, and the new administration is finally devoting some attention to the upkeep.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The SPAC Stack: Beauty is facade deep

The unveiling of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s new look for 2009 was greeted this week with the enthusiasm one musters when presented with a proud parent’s ugly baby.
“How unique!”
The initial shock was followed by the appropriate public gusto with which one might rave about the emporer’s new clothes, while muttering things like “mushroom” and “spaceship.”
The vertically striped triangles on the outside of the 42-year-old amphitheater are immediately recognizable icons of the local landscape, right up there with the peaks and grandstand of Saratoga Race Course, the Canfield Casino and the Batchellor Mansion.
The facade may well have been due for sprucing up. But a facelift is supposed to perk up your appearance, not totally change your identity. Is there a need to change for change’s sake?
People tend to resist change, especially when it’s foisted on them. The new façade need not have been subject to a vote by members, but the public could have been brought on board by, say, inviting suggestions for a new facade.
The beginning of the end of the arrogant old guard at SPAC was its closed-door decision a few years ago to drop the New York City Ballet, a bomb that was defused by replacing the president and most of the board. One hopes the lesson about public involvement has not been lost on the new guard, which has done mostly tremendous things for SPAC.
One thing for sure, this is getting people talking about the place.
“I leave town for two months and they turn SPAC into a giant cheese sandwich?” was an email from a former Saratogian reporter.
One resident e-mailed to say it reminded him of a layer cake that fell flat.
“At first I thought it looked like a mushroom,” said another local SPAC fan. “Then it started to grow on me.”
Like a mushroom?
“How do you like the new IHOP?” asked a major SPAC supporter in a phone call Friday morning.
Sportswriter Stan Hudy said it looked like a short stack of pancakes, the “SPAC Stack,” part of a Denny’s-style Capital Region Grand Slam: the SPAC Stack, the Egg in Albany and a side of bacon brought home by the politicians.
“The look of the track is protected, but not SPAC,” groused one shocked patron. “This is all about tradition. Does the Statue of Liberty need a new dress?”
I don’t know what’s gained by replacing the familiar brown and aqua façade with beige waves – perhaps it was “so ’60s!” -- but I suspect we’ll get used to it and maybe even come to love it.
Beauty is only façade deep.
More important than the look of the exterior is what’s going on inside: pending negotiations with concert provider Live Nation, filling more seats for the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra, encouraging more memberships and reaching for deep-pocket donations to underwrite the cost of keeping this wonderful venue alive and well.