A disastrous conference call for SPJ, followed by a call for impeachment

On Saturday, the board of directors for the Society of Professional Journalists met in a video conference call. The organization’s executive director, Alison Bethel McKenzie, had resigned from her paid position in April, and the 18-member board of directors, which is elected and serves on a voluntary, part-time basis, was set to discuss the search for a new one. What should have been a fairly dry, procedural discussion instead devolved into the Zoom meeting equivalent of a reality-show fight, with shouting, veiled personal attacks, and bickering over board bylaws. It was enough to prompt one board member to launch a campaign to impeach SPJ’s president, J. Alex Tarquinio.

Early in the call, Tarquinio, who is also a freelance journalist, sparred with Patti Newberry, the organization’s president-elect and Tarquinio’s current number-two, who teaches journalism at Miami University in Ohio. The rub, essentially, was that Newberry wanted to lead the committee that will search for a new executive director—a desire which she had shared with fellow board members prior to the meeting as well as Tarquinio—but Tarquinio had appointed someone else, without consulting board members on the decision. During the meeting, Tarquinio accused Newberry of going behind her back.

“It’s very disappointing, and I hope nobody does it in your term,” she told Newberry, giving an exasperated laugh. Newberry, who will replace Tarquinio as president in September at SPJ’s annual conference, visibly scoffed. “Do not chastise me publicly,” she said in response. Newberry attempted to go on, but Tarquinio spoke over her interjection.

Board members attempted several times to raise Tarquinio’s decision and her lack of consultation for discussion. Tarquinio repeatedly dismissed those motions as “out of order.” (Per SPJ’s bylaws, it is the prerogative of the president to appoint the head of the committee.) As the meeting continued, other board members were unable to get a word in edgewise. Tarquinio often failed to recognize members who kept their hands raised. Of those who did manage to speak, many were swiftly shut down. Circumscribed in their tiny video boxes—set against far-flung backgrounds that included home offices and one backyard porch—the board members shook their heads, threw up their arms, and laughed, seemingly in spite of the situation. Tarquinio remained by turns defiant and condemnatory.

“This board is a problem,” Tarquinio said at one point. She repeated herself: “This board is a problem.” And later: “I’m telling you, this board needs to start being supportive, not only of this president but of this [SPJ] staff. You’ve done several things recently that have upset the staff.”

“So have you!” Michael Koretzky, SPJ’s longest serving board member and the editor of Debt.com, answered.

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To Koretzky, who piped into the call from his home in southern Florida, the shouting was indicative of broader frustration at the direction of the country’s oldest journalist trade organization. According to SPJ figures, membership has declined more than 10 percent over the past year, to about 6,000 people, and journalism in general seems beset on all sides. “I can imagine being a laid-off journalist watching that video and thinking, ‘What a bunch of assholes,’” Koretzky says. “Like, ‘Stop arguing amongst yourselves and help me.’” The conference, as usual, had been recorded; over the remainder of the weekend, Koretzky compiled a supercut from the recording of what he viewed as the meeting’s worst momentsthe final result, a rapid-fire barrage of bureaucratic squabblingwhich he uploaded to his blog on Monday morning, along with a call to impeach Tarquinio.

 

During his decade on the board of SPJ, Koretzky has accrued a reputation as a troublemaker, which he mostly embraces. This is not the first time he has openly called out an SPJ president, and the name of his blogJournoterrorist.comis a reference to one former SPJ leader’s description of him. (“I thought it was funny,” he says.) It might easily be said that Monday’s move to impeach Tarquinio is more of the same from Koretzky. But additional members of the SPJ board who spoke with CJR agree that Saturday’s meeting was a low point and reflective of what they see as a tendency by Tarquinio to lead by dictum and to shut down dissent. (At one moment in the video, Tarquinio tells the board, “Let me just say, this entire plan is going to fall apart if I’m not allowed to lead it.”)

“Saturday was not a one-off,” Kelly P. Kissel, a board member who represents SPJ chapters in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi, says. Kissel, who in his day job serves as metro editor for Baton Rouge’s The Advocate, is more measured than Koretzky in his characterization of Tarquinio. But he agrees the board has lost some of its collaborative spirit during her tenure as president. At one moment during Saturday’s meeting, Kissel says he considered resigning on the spot. “What is the point of our being there?” he asks, if input and advice were unwelcome.

For Kissel, the current rancor on the board could have a lasting impact. The future executive director, he explains, will need to “stem membership losses and help SPJ take back the mantle on ethics and professionalism in journalism,” which Kissel says other outfits have challenged in recent years. Infighting, he worries, could cause SPJ to inadvertently forfeit potentially promising candidates for the job. “They’re going to be interviewing us as much as we’re going to be interviewing them,” Kissel says.

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Sue Kopen Katcef, a vice president on the board, has been a member of SPJ for 45 years. (“Since I was a sophomore at the University of Maryland,” she says.) In various local and national leadership positions, she’s seen personality conflicts between leaders come and go. “But I’ve never seen anything quite like this before,” she says. On the question of impeachment, Kopen Katcef says she’s reserving judgement but supports opening the conversation. “To be a leader is to listen,” she says. “And I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of listening going on.”

Tarquinio, who in the absence of an executive director is also serving as an interim director of sorts, defends her behavior during Saturday’s meeting as a matter of bureaucratic necessity. The SPJ bylaws require that a board member say something is out of order before discussion begins, Tarquinio tells CJR; were she to have allowed discussion on who should head the search committee it would have been “extremely dangerous” for the future of SPJ, she says. Tarquinio further rejects the suggestion that the current tension on the board poses a risk to the organization.

“The only risk is what [some members of the board] are trying to do now,” she says. “If they succeed in hampering me from executing this plan that I conceived, I don’t know how anyone will agree [to become executive director] because they will say, ‘This is an interventionist board.’ … If they allow my plan to go forward, we will get an excellent result.”

Tarquinio regrets the negative turn Saturday’s meeting took, she says, adding that conflict might have been avoided had she and Newberry communicated more clearly in advance of the meeting. “I think we bear equal responsibility for that, Patti and I,” Tarquinio says.

Following the meeting, Newberry emailed the board to withdraw her request to lead the search for an executive director and sought reconciliation with Tarquinio. “I feel we’ve on moved on from this moment of tension,” she tells CJR. On the impeachment call, Newberry isn’t taking sides, in part due to her position; as president-elect, Newberry would be elevated to the presidency in the case of Tarquinio’s removal. “My conscience tells me it’s best for the organization to remain neutral on this question,” she says. She adds that Saturday’s meeting was more productive than it appears in Koretzky’s supercuta full video of the meeting, posted later in the day Monday to SPJ’s YouTube channel, spaces out the acrimonybut she doesn’t challenge her colleague’s conclusions. “I think Michael’s summation on his blog post was fair and accurate,” Newberry says.

An SPJ spokesperson tells CJR that Saturday’s meeting was not representative of other board meetings held during Tarquinio’s tenure and that events have been “blown out of proportion,” distracting from SPJ’s achievements this year, including a non-profit media summit on freedom of the press and a speech by Tarquinio to the UN. The spokesperson adds that, to the best of their knowledge, this is the first call in recent memory for an SPJ president to step down.

Koretzky, for his part, says he does not take a call for impeachment lightly. “No one wants to hit the nuclear button,” he says. “You keep trying, as rational people, to come at something just a little bit differently.” Where he expected blowback from fellow board members and the SPJ ranks, however, he says little has come. “If there are two sides here, they’re, ‘Let’s impeach now,’ and, ‘Let’s wait to see if reactions to this video help cool things down,’” Koretzky says. “Nobody’s saying, ‘Let’s do nothing.’”

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Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.