'Liberty in the Balance': The Sacramento Bee Investigated What's Happening to Civil Liberties Instead of Sending Reporters to Cover the War in Iraq

Article excerpt

It wasn't a particularly popular choice in some parts of the newsroom: The Sacramento Bee would not be sending any reporters or photographers to Iraq to cover the impending war. Yes, it was a huge story that would receive worldwide coverage. And yes, many large and medium-sized papers were sending staffers to Iraq either as embedded reporters and photographers or as unilateral reporters. There were certainly valid arguments for doing so, but these were not part of the reasoning I, as executive editor, used to arrive at the decision I did. And I reached this decision, in part, because I trusted that our readers would not be short-changed. I knew that we'd give them a solid selection of stories and photographs from reporters being sent by other McClatchy papers and the dozen or so wire services to which we subscribe.

Instead of incurring the large cost of covering the war, I wanted to concentrate our newsroom's limited resources and time on a story of major national import that I thought wasn't receiving the kind of scrutiny it deserved: the increasing controversy surrounding the USA Patriot Act, which Congress passed in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. At a paper of our size--295,000 daily--editors often have to make choices on how best to deploy resources to deliver the most impact to readers. I knew that to do this story properly would require several months of investigative reporting; if reporters were in Iraq covering the war, the newsroom would not have the resources to enable a team of reporters and editors to take on this assignment.

Because of concerns I had about the lack of press attention to what might be happening with civil liberties in this country since the act's passage, in February 2003 I asked senior writer Sam Stanton to begin taking an in-depth look at this issue in various communities around the country. I also told the editor of this project, Deborah Anderluh, to let the reporters travel to wherever they needed to go and to use reporters she needed to use to be sure the story would be fully told. Soon, immigration reporter Emily Bazar and photographer Paul Kitagaki, Jr. joined Stanton to make this a three-person reporting team.

During the next several months, Stanton, Bazar and Kitagaki traveled across the country and to Canada as they searched for information about and examples of how people's lives have been affected by the USA Patriot Act. Their reporting led them to conclude that this legislation and a host of related government regulations was having a profound effect on many people's lives. They found immigrants, primarily Muslims and others from the Middle East who legally immigrated to the United States, who were moving to Canada because they feared a government crackdown against them. They located immigrants who had overstayed their visas--a violation that in the past might have been ignored--who were now in jail as they awaited deportation hearings. They reported on immigrants who were being held incommunicado for indeterminate amounts of time.

But what became a four-part series of Page One stories went far beyond observing the impact this law was having on immigrants.

* The reporters interviewed two Americans, both of whom were antiwar activists, who were blocked from boarding a plane in San Francisco because they were on a government-sanctioned "no-fly list."

* They spoke with a man who was questioned at his home by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on the day after he and six others, while working out in a gym, had engaged in a heated debate about religious fanaticism and the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.

* In Santa Fe, New Mexico, they found a former assistant public defender who was using a computer in the library at St. John's College to search the Internet, when he was suddenly surrounded by four Santa Fe police officers who told him he was being detained by order of the FBI. He was taken to the police department and interrogated for more than an hour before being released. …