Contending that she was targeted because she is not affiliated with any news organization, Houston crime writer Vanessa Leggett told the SPJ Region 8 Conference about her 168-day stint behind bars for refusing to hand federal authorities her notes for a forthcoming book.
"I wish it were a crime, because I feel they were being vindictive toward me," she said, asserting that federal authorities were more intent on hiding embarrassing details than uncovering the truth.
About 150 professionals, educators and students attended the two-day conference in San Antonio, which ended with a headline session in which Leggett covered the twists of a murder-for-hire case in which alleged bookie Robert Angleton was acquitted of hiring his brother to kill his wife. The brother, Roger Angleton, died mysteriously while awaiting trial, after giving Leggett a series of jailhouse interviews.
Roger left a note in his cell that began with a request that "in the event of my death, please contact Vanessa Leggett" with a phone number, she said, quoting from the message.
"Now, the jail didn't do that, which was sort of suspicious," she said. "They've never wanted to talk to me, even though I was the last person from the outside to visit Mr. Roger Angleton."
Leggett spent more time behind bars than any journalist ever has for refusing to turn over confidential notes and recordings, and SPJ's Legal Defense Fund gave her $12,500 to defray her legal bills, the most it has given any litigant.
The petite, gray-suited Leggett recalled the "construction orange" jumpsuit she was issued in jail. She spent the first night in solitary confinement for failure to comply with authority. Worried that anything she wrote would be confiscated, Leggett was left with little to do but read, watch television, crochet or play Bingo and Monopoly.
"It was extremely monotonous, extremely boring," she said.
Another conference keynote speaker was Carolina Garcia, head of the American Society of Newspapers Editors Diversity Committee and managing editor of the San Antonio Express-News, the conference's major sponsor. Garcia spoke about the need to find creative ways to cover multicultural communities.
"Newspapers do not have enough staff who are diverse, know their communities and know how to cover different communities. Newspapers for the last 23 years have been struggling very hard to diversify their newsrooms so they can better reflect the communities they write about," Garcia said.
For the Mark of Excellence luncheon honoring the best college journalism in Texas and Oklahoma, political reporters and editors from the Express-News, Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News swapped tales about the president's favorite pillow and other anecdotes from the Bush-Cheney campaign trail.
The program also included a panel with some of Texas' top Freedom of Information Act advocates, who lamented increasing government secrecy since Sept. 11. There also was a slide show of images from Afghanistan by award-winning Express-News photographer Edward Ornealas. Editors, producers and reporters who covered the World Trade Center attacks and ensuing U.S. military action told their stories, including Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Barry Shlachter, who returned to Afghanistan, which he had covered for the Associated Press two decades earlier, and Raul Reyes, national editor of The Morning News.
"We're normally a four-person desk; by noon we were a six-person desk, by 3 p.m. we were a 10-person desk, and we eventually became a 12-person desk that included reporters and editors," Reyes recalled.
Another hot session focused on lessons from the Enron meltdown - should the media have seen the warning signs?
"The media has taken more of a key role in showing that type of strategy (investing most of a company's capital in its own stock) might not be the best thing to do," said Mike Thomas of the San Antonio Business Journal. "It's not so much about what the media should have known to prevent the fall of Enron from happening, but rather, what part we can play in keeping something like this from happening again."
Other sessions included tips for improving copy and interviewing techniques. At a panel on free-lancing, Sue Merkner, regional editor of Our Kids magazine, said free-lancers must know their target audience and should remember that it's a business. "Keep a file of your receipts," she said. "Toughen up - you will be rejected."
Monique Hitchings-Barbee is secretary of the SPJ Houston Chapter Pro Chapter.