Friday, June 27, 2008

AFT Censorship of Substance


I hope you can share this as widely as possible among our friends who believe in
freedom of the press. As you know, AFT will be issuing press credentials to
many people, including representatives of some dubious regimes around the world
and individuals funded by the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation. AFT's
Public Affairs Office has already informed other Chicago news organizations, some
smaller than Substance, that their reporters will be issued credentials to
cover the convention.

Thanks. What I have below should help explain the situation in context.

George N. Schmidt, Editor, Substance

June 27, 2008

Colleagues and friends:

Yesterday, Substance received the following e-mail:

"AFT will not be able to give your organization press credentials. We only
provide credentials to legitimate news organizations."

The e-mail was send by Janet Bass (, who is part of the staff
of what is called the "Public Affairs Office" of the American Federation of
Teachers in Washington, D.C. Ms. Bass's e-mail was in response to my repeated
requests to establish press credentials for Substance staff for the upcoming
convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Chicago.

As you know, the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers
is scheduled to begin in Chicago on July 11, with pre-convention activities
taking place beginning July 9.

As editor of Substance, I called AFT at least three times during the past
week, requesting the procedures for getting press credentials for those members
of our staff who would be covering the convention as reporters, videographers,
bloggers, and photographers (we intend to utilize all four media for this
event and have prepared a special section of the Substance Website for daily
coverage of both the National Education Association (NEA) convention (which begins
in Washington, D.C. July 1) and the AFT convention here in Chicago (beginning
July 11).

Traditionally, we inform organizations we will be covering in advance so that
their press people can prepare credentials and do any other necessary review
prior to the beginning of the news event. During the news event, we are all
too busy to revert to any bureaucratic necessities.

Ironically, the AFT is invoking a power (to determine what constitutes a
"legitimate news organization") which even President George W. Bush and the White
House Press Office would not invoke. As many of you know, in January 2008
(this past January), we received advanced notice that President Bush would be in
Chicago on January 7 to mark the anniversary of No Child Left Behind.

Although we generally don't cover national news events, if they take place in
Chicago we do. Several times during the past ten years, Substance has covered
figures from the U.S. Department of Education (including the now famous
former Deputy Education Secretary Susan Neuman and the current U.S. Secretary of
Education Margaret Spellings) during media events which are held in Chicago. We
then routinely publish reports and analysis of these events. Even so finicky a
news manager as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has rarely tried to bar us
from news events, and our staff regularly go through the procedures established
by the Chicago Police Department to acquire Chicago Police press credentials.

Although it took three days, the White House Press Office eventually approved
three of our reporters (myself; Jackson Potter; and Joe Guzman) for coverage
of President Bush's visit to Chicago on January 7. What that meant was that we
had general access to several of the events of the day, although we (like all
of the TV stations and most other reporters) were barred from Bush's
seven-minute speech at Greeley Elementary School.

President Bush's No Child Left Behind anniversary speech was only covered by
the "Press Pool". This consists of two layers and is explained in our
Substance coverage (see our Home Page at if you are interested
in this interesting detail of free press in the USA.

Interestingly, because of the terms under which "pool coverage" of the
President's visit are concerned, we were provided with all of the photos and reports
of the two Tribune people who were allowed into the main pool at Greeley,
Stephanie Banchero and a photographer. Both of these, as well as the White House
transcript of Bush's precise words, were published by Substance as news both
in our print edition and on the Web.

During the course of establishing our right to cover the President's Chicago
visit, we had to comply with a number of reasonable security concerns. The
three of us who covered President Bush had to provide the White House with our
personal information (including Social Security number) and submit to several
security checks. At O'Hare Airport (in a very secure part of the airport) we and
our cars were searched twice by Secret Service before we were driven out to
the tarmac by security (along with everyone else from the local press who had
been vetted) to cover the landing of Air Force One. You can see our photographs
from that part of the event at

From O'Hare, we sped into Chicago, where we joined most of the press corps
outside a very secure perimeter around Horace Greeley Elementary School, while
President Bush, Mayor Daley, and Congressman Emmanuel were part of the NCLB
anniversary inside. That part of our coverage resulted in the front page
photograph of the mounted police cordoning off Greeley from the public (and, as I
said, "non pool" press). Our ability to report on what took place inside Greeley
existed because under the terms of the "Pool" coverage approach, other news
organizations are entitled to news reports and photographs from the events which
are restricted to "Pool." The Chicago Tribune followed these professional
rules precisely, and both the news reports and photographs from inside Greeley
were made available to us (you can read them in Substance, February 2008).

From Greeley, Joe, Jackson and I sped downtown to the Union League Club,
where Mayor Daley and President Bush were scheduled to meet with the Olympic 2016
committee before President Bush gave a speech on the economy (still one for
the books, in retrospect) to a select audience of wealthy Union League Club
members and family. At that event, we were again screened and admitted only after
security nodded. Our Chicago Police Press Credentials were necessary to get
through the police lines to get to the Union League Club (there were protesters
outside at Dearborn and Jackson, some of whom were later arrested). Inside, we
were screened again. But since we had already taken all the steps necessary
to cover the event, Jackson, Joe and I were led upstairs where we joined the
rest of the media awaiting (for more than an hour) the President of the United

I could give 50 or 100 other examples of our experiences covering the news in
Chicago and elsewhere during the past ten years, but have shared that one
from January of this year because it goes to the fundamental First Amendment
nature of this business. Nobody in the USA -- including the President of the
United States -- has the power to say who is "legitimate news" media or
organizations. As you can see by reviewing our coverage of the January news from the most
powerful man (and office) on earth, by maintaining our professionalism and
providing the White House with reasonable information, we established our right
to cover one of the most important education news events to take place in
Chicago in the past year.

Viewed from the perspective of the news coverage Substance has provided on
education stories during the past 12 months, this current disagreement with the
American Federation of Teachers Public Affairs Office is something of a
tempest in a teapot.

However, we have to ask all of our friends to contact that AFT and demand
that the AFT Public Affairs Office immediately stop its attempt to censor
Substance's coverage of the AFT national convention this summer.

You can contact Janet Bass by e-mail at AFT (

I would also ask that people who have the time write (snail mail) to AFT
President Ed McElroy demanding (or requesting if you think that's the best way to
do it) that AFT stop trying to censor Substance's coverage.

Ed McElroy
President, American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
555 New Jersey Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20001

I'm sorry that you and the staff of Substance have to waste time on this
rather silly exercise in the protection of our First Amendment rights, but I have
to ask that you do so. Neither the President of the United States of America
nor a couple of self important union bureaucrats has the right to declare who
or what constitutes "legitimate news organizations." To have allowed George W.
Bush to restrict our coverage of his No Child Left Behind visit to Chicago in
January 2008 would have been to surrender an important part of our precious
rights. To allow Ed McElroy, Janet Bass, or any other union bureaucrat to
restrict our coverage of the 2008 convention of the American Federation of Teachers
in July 2008 would also do violence to the freedoms and rights we all hold

I'll close with some words I memorized years ago and from time to time
repeat. Along with a few other part of our shared history (two by Abraham Lincoln --
the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural), they rings as powerfully
today as they did when they first became law more than 200 years ago:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the
press, or the right of the people, peaceably to assemble, to petition the
government for a redress of grievances." (First Amendment, from memory...).

Thank you for your help in this matter,

Solidarity Forever,

George N. Schmidt
Editor, Substance

5132 W. Berteau
Chicago, IL 60641

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