South Missourian manager editor David Cox attended the National Newspaper Association's 45th annual Government Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C., March 8-11.
The highlight of the conference was an address from President George W. Bush who spoke on issues related to the conference theme, "Fighting for Democracy: A Free Society at War."
"You would not have known this was an embattled president whose approval rating is plummeting," Cox said. "He spoke with confidence about both the war in Iraq and the economy."
The president said he would not let "polls and focus groups" dictate policy for his administration, saying he will continue to do what he believes is right for national security and the well-being of American citizens. Although many of the publishers and editors at the conference oppose the president's policies, they applauded his candid approach and his willingness to take questions.
The conference also included addresses by by two likely presidential candidates in 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
McCain, whose immigration reform bill is being debated in Congress, defended the president's handling of the war on terror but said the next six months will reveal whether the president's goal of a free and democratic Iraq is achievable.
Obama said he is introducing a bill to require FEMA to publish legal notices in newspapers in the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast detailing contracts and expenditures. He said he has not yet found a sponsor for the bill in the House or Representatives.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff spoke, acknowledging errors by FEMA in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He outlined the department's stategy for preventing another delayed response to a natural disaster.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) spoke to conference attendees about his bill, the Free Flow of Information Act, otherwise known as the federal shield law. The law would prevent judges from forcing reporters to identify confidential sources without compelling reasons, such as national security. Fellow Hoosier state Sen. Richard Lugar has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
Other speakers included Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq; Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), majority whip of the House who recently lost a close race to succeed Rep. Tom Delay as majority leader; Postmaster General John E. Potter; Rear Admiral Nathan Jones; CNN world affairs correspondent Ralph Begleiter; and Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the United States.
Joining Cox were his wife, Heidi, and Arkansas Press Association Executive Director Tom Larimer and his wife, Pam. The conference included about 100 newspaper professionals from around the country, including many state press association presidents and executive directors. Cox is president of the Arkansas Press Association.
During the conference, the Coxes and Larimers met with all six members of the Arkansas delegation in Congress -- Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, and Reps. Marion Berry, Mike Ross, Vic Snyder and John Boozman. Cox and Larimer asked each member to support the bills by Sen. Obama (FEMA legal notices) and Rep. Pence (federal media shield law).
"The reason we support a federal shield law is not to keep reporters out of jail, but because without it, confidential sources will be afraid to speak to the press," Cox said. For two centuries, a federal shield law was unnecessary because the courts generally interpreted the First Amendment as providing broad protections for the press, but courts are becoming increasingly inclined to hold reporters in contempt when they refuse to reveal confidential sources, Cox said.
"If the trend continues, the press will be hindered from gathering information the public has the right to know. The law protects both confidential sources and reporters, and yes, that privilege is sometimes abused. But concerns about abuse of the privilege are outweighed by the need to keep information flowing to the public," Cox said.
The conference also included a tour of the U.S. Capitol, visits to the State Department, Smithsonian Museums and Irish Embassy, and a closing banquet at the National Press Club Building.