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Gracia Martore: 2012 First Amendment Awards Dinner Remarks

I have the privilege this evening to be introducing my long-time colleague Barbara Wall.

Before I mention Barbara’s accomplishments, I thought I might share with you a story about how Barbara first became interested in First Amendment law. She doesn’t tell this story often and when you hear it you will know why.

When Barbara was at UVA, she signed up to be an investigative reporter for the Cavalier Daily. One of her first assignments was to write a story about the increasing number of unmarried student couples who were living together — “cohabitation” as it was called back in 1973.  Barbara interviewed lots of students, some of whom she promised to keep confidential. A photographer was sent out — Barbara CLAIMS she had nothing to do with this — to take pictures of couples around the grounds to illustrate the story. When the full-page report was published, parents of the students were furious. Calls were made to the president’s office and one parent — a lawyer — threatened to sue the University and to subpoena the reporter for her sources. Fortunately, the university had a good media lawyer who convinced the parents that a suit would be unsuccessful. But Barbara learned early how important First Amendment advocacy is to good journalism.

After graduating from law school, Barbara landed a job with one of the top media law firms in New York City. But after six years there, her husband Chris was transferred to DC. Barbara was reluctant to leave a practice she loved, but Gannett was moving its headquarters from Rochester to Washington and was looking for lawyers. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the years, Barbara has worked with reporters, editors, producers and news directors on some of Gannett’s most important stories: with the USA TODAY reporters who exposed the dangers posed to elementary schools around the country by toxic emissions, with the Gannett News Service reporters who revealed that hundreds of child-abuse related deaths go undetected as a result of medical examiner errors, with the Louisville Courier Journal reporters who uncovered hundreds of violations of federal safety laws in Kentucky Coal mines, with the Detroit Free Press team whose relentless reporting on perjury and corruption sent the city’s mayor to jail, and with the WUSA Washington investigative team that unveiled a deadly design flaw in a popular SUV.

Reporting like this — that changes lives and builds a better world — is central to Gannett’s mission. And it could not happen without Barbara’s efforts.

  • When the Gannett reporters ask for public records that might reveal incompetence or corruption, government officials don’t JUST say “here you go.” Instead, they come up with dozens of reasons why they fall within some exception to the public records law. But that’s when Barbara and her team go to court. And they do that often — as of today, Gannett has thirty active access suits around the country — and with great success. And great stories result.
  • And when Gannett reporters uncover corporate wrongdoing, those companies often hire high priced lawyers to write ten-page letters threatening suit. But that’s when Barbara and her team write ten-page letters back making it clear that legal threats only make Gannett journalists redouble their efforts.
  • And once stories are published, Gannett reporters are sometimes subpoenaed to reveal their sources. That’s when Barbara and her team go to court to get the subpoenas quashed, because if we don’t protect our confidential sources, we won’t have any in the future.
  • And, of course, after critical reports are published, we often face lawsuits claiming libel or false light. That’s when Barbara and her team fight those tooth and nail to defend our good journalism.

Now to prepare my introduction of Barbara tonight, I polled some folks around Gannett to get a read on their views on Barbara’s contributions.

One Gannett editor — Kathy Spurlock — responded by wondering if Barbara sleeps, noting that she’s consulted with Barbara in the middle of the day, the middle of the night, and well before her first cup of coffee.

According to Ellen Crooke at WXIA in Atlanta, Barbara never got the memo that says corporate lawyers are supposed to say no.  Instead, “she flips that stereotype on its head.” Barbara’s mission has been 'how do we get this story to air?' “Barbara isn’t afraid of the fight because she teaches us as journalists to be forthright and unquestionably accurate.”

Gannett Broadcast’s news VP Rob Mennie says our news directors look forward to conversations with Barbara, and notes that she can be a “pit bull if a lawyer threatens one of our stations — she loves the fight.”

And Barbara is relentless.  As former USA TODAY editor John Hillkirk notes, when USA TODAY freelance reporter Claire Gillis was taken hostage in Libya, Barbara worked night and day to secure her release. John describes Barbara’s tireless efforts as “nothing short of unbelievable” and “so far beyond the call of duty that it almost leaves you speechless.” 

Detroit Free Press editor Paul Anger puts it this way: “What’s the most assuring sound in the world? Barbara’s voice on the phone.”

Count me among those who have been relieved to hear Barbara’s voice on the phone and who is deeply grateful for all that she does for Gannett and for the communities Gannett has the privilege to serve.

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