An Open Letter to the Ethics Committee of the National Press Club

The Ethics Committee of the National Press Club has asked me to present my journalistic credentials following the controversy of my suspension from the Club because of my questioning of the former head of Saudi intelligence Amb. Turki bin Faisal al-Saud. (See: Journalist Questions Legitimacy of Saudi Regime, Is Suspended from National Press Club

The proof that I am a journalist is the very fact that I asked the question that I did.

There's been a lot of talk about the legitimacy of the Syrian regime, I want to know what legitimacy your regime has, sir. You come before us, representative of one of the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth. Human Rights Watch and other reports of torture detention of activist, you squelched the democratic uprising in Bahrain, you tried to overturn the democratic uprising in Egypt and indeed you continue to oppress your own people. What legitimacy does you regime have -- other than billions of dollars and weapons?

It's a particularly critical question as the Saudi regime backs counter-revolutions and the
Egyptian military attacks pro-democracy activists. It's a question that needed to be asked. And critically, it did draw a response, however disingenuous, from Amb. al-Saud. (He didn't respond to the Saudi role in curtailing democratic movements; he talked of how funds from the Saudi regime give it legitimacy -- effectively ignoring my "other than billions of dollars" -- and did not address domestic repression like torture.)

It's this question and other challenging questions of those in power that journalists need to be asking.  

Journalism is in crisis and it must be reinvented for its own good and for the good of society as a whole. A substantial part of that re-invention is the capacity to ask tough questions of powerful officials. Being a journalist in essence isn't about "credentials" and professional affiliations. It's about the practice of it.

Instead of supporting this, William McCarren, the executive director of the Press Club, who founded a press release distribution company, has made false statements about my journalistic integrity and has attempted to paint me in a false and negative light.

As prominent journalists and other notables have learned about my suspension, I have received many heartening statements of support. Among them:

Chris Hedges, author and part of the team of reporters at The New York Times awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the paper's coverage of global terrorism: "I was distressed to hear of the ruling of the Press Club concerning Sam Husseini, who certainly meets the qualifications to be considered a journalist and who is permitted in this capacity to ask difficult and provocative questions. I hope the board will reconsider the ban on his participation in the Press Club."

Author and Professor James K. Galbraith, Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr. Chair in Government/Business Relations, LBJ School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin: "As a long-time follower of the Institute for Public Accuracy, I find it a valuable antidote to the slack treatment of the high-and-mighty that has become habitual. The notion that Sam Husseini is not a journalist is, well, silly -- considering that the problem he continually deals with is the low standard for qualifying as such in Washington."

Dean Baker, author and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research who writes the "Beat the Press" blog: "Sam Husseini does what journalists are supposed to do. He does his background homework to gather evidence about a situation, and then he asks tough questions based on this work. It is understandable that Sam's questions make people in power uncomfortable. That is what real reporters do. The goal for reporters is not supposed to be becoming friends with the powerful, it's supposed to be getting information to the public. That will often mean embarrassing people in power. If the Press Club sanctions this behavior, it says a great deal about the Press Club and its vision of journalism."

There's a serious question of double standards about when tough questioning is encouraged and when it is discourage or even prevented. For example, when Jörg Haider, the Austrian neo-Nazi was at the Press Club several years ago, I was allowed by Peter Hickman, the same moderator at the recent event, to ask several followups in a very similar, rigorous manner and gave me his congratulations. I've been unable to obtain a transcript or video of the event, but I recall being visibly angry when questioning him -- realizing I was talking to someone who, if he were ever to actually come to power, could commit unspeakable evil, and I was atleast as tough with him as I was with Amb. al-Saud.

Real journalism is asking tough questions of all the players. Or, more appropriately, asking the toughest questions of the most powerful. Too often, I've seen reporters fawn over a figure more the more powerful they are. That I think is exactly the wrong instinct.

We should have an open discussion of such issues. But while the Ethics Committee of the National Press Club asked to meet with me, it insisted the meeting be in private. No members of the public allowed. No other members of the Press Club allowed. No recording of the event allowed. There is a complaint against me, I have asked a copy of it, but have been told it is confidential. If I were to go to a meeting of the Ethics Committee, I'd be questioned about the complaint, but would apparently still not be able to actually see it. I cannot take part in such a meeting.

As I indicated in my original piece, Mr. McCarren has in the past indicated to me that his concern about my tough questioning is that it causes some officials to go to other venues in D.C. I indicated to him and continue to believe that ultimately the response to this serious issue cannot possibly be to curtail asking tough questioning. Prominent officials go on Stephen Colbert's show because he uses humor to attract a mass audience even though he in effect ridicules these officials. I'm certainly not saying that the Press Club should resort to ridicule, parody and satire. I'm saying that there are solutions to the issue of access other than to go soft on officials. For example, there's a measure of prestige associated with an event at the Press Club and a key part of that should be that critical questions are asked here. Otherwise, it's a public relations event.

I was also heartened by the statement of Let's Press Ahead -- a slate of young members promising reform in the upcoming Dec. 9 National Press Club elections:

We, the members of Let's Press Ahead condemn the suspension of NPC member Sam Husseini in the strongest terms. Journalists are professional antagonists. While decorum is important, it's our job to ask tough questions, especially of those who hold power. If there is one place on Earth where that kind of spirited, inquisitive work should be celebrated, it's at the NPC. The video of Mr. Husseini shows nothing that would come close to warranting his suspension. We've asked the NPC executive director and ethics committee for an explanation. So far: nothing. The NPC is supposed to be "the World’s Leading Professional Organization for Journalists.” Sadly, this kind of action against an NPC member for doing his job tears it down.

The Ethics Committee, despite the secretive process, has an opportunity to rescind my suspension and issue an apology. Hopefully the members will do the right thing.

Additional information on process, responding to charges and answering questions:

On the Day in Question

I've been specifically asked by John Hughes, the chair of the National Press Club Ethics Committee, to address what happened on the day of the incident, Nov. 15, including in the hallway, as Mr. McCarren has claimed I was attempting to disrupt the news conference. This charge is false. Here are the facts:

My question, at 37 seconds, was actually rather short -- shorter than the one that followed, for example. After I asked my question, Amb. Turki bin Faisal al-Saud replied, "Have you been to the Kingdom?"; rather than following this irrelevant distraction (one does not need to have visited Stalin's Soviet Union to know it was repressive, and Amb. al-Saud criticized Israel in his opening remarks, which he presumably has never visited) and I responded by restating my question: "What legitimacy does your regime have?"

Mr. McCarren walked up to me, standing to face me, and said, "Put your question and let him answer, we have a whole room of people." I responded: "He [Amb. al-Saud] asked me a question. He asked me and I responded."

During the beginning of Amb. al-Saud's reply to my question, Mr. McCarren continued speaking to me, telling me in a combative tone to let Amb. Al Saud answer the question. I told Mr. McCarren that I was simply responding to Amb. al-Saud's question to me. As Mr. McCarren continued in the same combative manner, I asked him, in a rather hushed tone "Are you threatening me?" He responded: "Absolutely."

As should be obvious, I was not out to disrupt the news conference. I did not raise my voice or speak out of turn. I responded to questions from the speaker by successfully redirecting the exchange back to the original question. When my attempt to ask a follow-up question was cut off by the moderator, I yielded to the next questioner.

If anyone was being disruptive at the news conference, it was Mr. McCarren, accosting and (according to him) threatening a journalist and member as I attempted to question a speaker according to the direction of the event's actual moderator.

After the news conference, I had a further encounter with Mr. McCarren, which I described in my original account: 

Postscript regarding my interaction with McCarren: After [Amb. Turki bin Faisal al-Saud] finished replying to my question, I decided to head back to my office, I was trying to meet a deadline on another matter. McCarren was at  the door. I said to him as I left the room and walked into the hallway that Turki had asked me a question, explaining that I had to say something to respond to Turki's question. McCarren claimed I was being disruptive. I said that I was simply trying to ask tough questions. McCarren was literally wagging his finger in my face. I told him to stop doing so and he did. He talked about suspending me. He grabbed me by the arm, I told him to stop. He let go of my arm. He was acting as if I was being loud at this point and was disturbing the news conference going on inside the room and he was literally trying to physically remove me from the Club. But I wasn't shouting or anything, he was probably louder than me. At one point, when McCarren talked about suspending me, I looked over at Keith Hill, the Club vice president, who was standing next to us, listening to the exchange and he said with a shrug "he [McCarren] can do that." I was not disruptive at this or any other point. I continued saying I was simply trying to ask tough questions. McCarren and I both started walking toward the elevators, he continued talking about suspending me. I told him it sounded to me like he was trying to mimic the authoritarianism of the Saudi regime in miniature. When we were near the front desk, near the elevators, he harangued me specifically about not directly answering Turki's question to me -- had I been to Saudi Arabia? I said it doesn't matter -- that Turki can answer the question I pose to him as he likes and I can answer the question he poses to me as I like. I didn't want Turki to not answer the question by using a distraction. At this point McCarren was almost shouting: "It's not about you!" I said of course it's not about me, it doesn't matter if I've been to Saudi Arabia, it matters that it's an authoritarian regime. I told him he was being hysterical. He motioned to the elevators as if he were kicking me out, I told him I had lots of work to do, he began stepping away and I got on the elevator and headed back to my office.

Looking back on it now, it's clear that Mr. McCarren was trying to get me away from the news conference not because I was shouting, but because he wanted to shout at me. His behavior suggests he was intent on provoking a verbal and possibly even physical confrontation, which was avoided because I de-escalated the situation. I believe he owes me an apology for accosting and his discourteous and unprofessional behavior.

Viewing the evidence, I did not attempt to disrupt the news conference in any way. I asked a tough question and attempted to minimize my reaction to McCarren's numerous provocations and obstacles placed before me in fulfilling a journalistic role.

On Some of Mr. McCarren's False Statements

Mr. McCarren's has made public comments that place me in a false light and attempt to disparage and defame me and my journalistic integrity. This is apparently done in an attempt to stifle me -- saying that I should "hang back" and allow corporate, commercial media outlets to dominate news conferences. For example, Mr. McCarren claims to Media Bistro: "He [Husseini] has paying clients." Not only do I not have paying clients, but the group I work with, the Institute for Public Accuracy, does not have paying clients. The organization is a non-profit and receives funding from foundations and other indepdent sources. IPA makes decions about what to feature on a news release based on the issue, not for any financial reason. This is in contrast to public relations firms or news release distribution organizations like U.S. Newswire, which Mr. McCarren founded, or P.R. Newswire which reportedly purchased it for millions of dollars.

Another example of McCarren's false statements is: "It’s not like Sam Husseini can go to the White House, Congress or the State Department and ask a question." In fact, I've been issued congressional press credentials and can go there anytime I want. I tend not to just simply because my office is in the Press Building, where the National Press Club is also located, and events here are obviously more convenient. I've asked questions at events all around D.C., at think tanks and other venues. McCarren should apologize for making these and other disparaging and potentially defamatory remarks. If he does not, the ethics committee should distance the Press Club from such remarks. This is not a complete listing of false statements made by Mr. McCarren and other NPC personnel, but I understand the Ethics Committee is in need of a speedy reply on these matters. 

I don't bear Mr. McCarren any personal animosity. He has made false statements and I believe he has acted foolishly in this episode and I sincerely hope he is beginning to realize this and will apologize, but I've also witnessed him acting judiciously and intelligently in the past, so I think he's capable of that. I'm open to having a productive relationship with him, but management and concerns about connections and potential financial impact of legitimate journalistic conduct must take a decided backseat to vigorously ensuring -- actually, encouraging -- the right to question powerful officials

On Process and Journalistic Credentials

Ethics Committee has proposed a closed meeting, not accessible to the public or even to National Press Club members and that is not to be recorded. I cannot in good conscience take part in such a process. John Hughes, chair of the Ethics Committee wrote to me: "The only people attending will be yourself, the ethics committee, and Bill McCarren. ... The meeting cannot be video taped. ... Suspension proceedings, past and present, are private matters. ...The original complaint is confidential, although in our meeting, I and other committee members would discuss it with you and ask you questions about it." So I would be compelled to answer questions in secret and without recording about a document accusing me that I would not be able to see. This is particularly ironic given that the Ethics Committee is concerned about what happened in the hallway outside the news conference because there was no recording of it. Why compound the problem of a lack of recording? I've never received a substantial response to my questions about the justification for this process. So, instead, I am writing responses to what has been made available to me as best I can. I am essentially attempting to engage what process there is and to open it up. I'm happy to be accountable, but I want a process that is itself accountable.

Mr. Hughes has declined to give me any information on past suspensions. From my discussions with other members, it appears suspensions invoking the "boisterous" behavior label have been applied to people who use profanity at the bar and such, not to any journalistic situation, but I can't verify that since the Ethics Committee will not comment.

The statement from National Press Club President Mark Hamrick on Nov. 18 states: "We do not discuss issues regarding individual members and their status within the Club publicly." And yet goes on to state: "The member in question is classified as a Communicator, not a journalist." Mr. Hamrick would appear to have violated his own stipulation in his short statement.

The more critical question is why raise this red herring of my classification as a "Communicator"? I've been asking questions at the Press Club for over a decade. My questions tend to scrutinize those in power and Press Club Executive Director McCarren has openly told me that the my questioning in his view means that notables are avoiding the Press Club, as I wrote in my original piece. Are either Mr. Hamrick or Mr. McCarren arguing that people classified as Communicators not have the same rights to ask questions as those classified as journalists? Raising this issue seems like a pretext to undermine my journalistic efforts and to paint me in a false and negative light.

Mr. Hughes has written to me: "Communicators are welcome to ask questions at Press Club press conferences..."

I should note that while it is true that I am a "Communicator" member, and such members should have the same rights to question as Mr. Hughes seems to affirm, my classification as such seems to be a vestige of past categories that no longer apply. The Communicator category apparently used to go under another name and has apparently been modified. The Press Club Membership Categories include under the journalism category a classification I don't believe existed when I became a member over a decade ago: "...or funded by a non-profit organization. (Organization must operate with editorial independence from any political, government, commercial or special interest and must be published for the primary dissemination of the news.)" This describes my work at funded by the Institute for Public Accuracy.

Mr. Hughes has written me: "On the journalism front, please give a complete explanation of what makes you a journalist. If you are an advocate/consultant/pr representative in addition to doing some kind of journalistic enterprise, please explain the amount of time you spend on each one, who your clients are, and where most of your income comes from. These are the questions the Press Club must sort out all the time, because as you know we have journalist and non-journalists members. As a journalist, are you credentialed by the congressional press gallery, or any others?"

Again, why raise this if Communicator members have the same rights to ask questions as journalist members as Mr. Hughes states? But to answer directly: Mr. Hughes, while much more professional in tone, seems to have the same misunderstanding about my work at the Institute for Public Accuracy that Mr. McCarren has. IPA does not have "clients." We do not do consulting or even advocacy per se, though of course we give voice to advocates, as any media enterprise does. As stated on our webpage, we take no money from anyone for putting them on a news release. IPA is funded largely through foundations.

In addition to my IPA work, I do some journalism work for various independent outlets, occasionally participating in talk radio program journalist round tables, writing for various webpages, my personal blog, and the project I founded. (Others may be interested: I have asked Mr. Hughes: "Can you tell me what the Press Club policy is about bloggers being journalist members?" and "Are any members who apply for membership as journalists declined who have Hill credentials?" But he has declined to answer, pointing me to the membership department, which I have not had time to engage)

A serious examination of the IPA webpage -- -- would show a number of examples in which IPA was putting out critical information that time proved correct, quite often out-performing established commercial media outlets. For example, before the Iraq war, we put out material severely out of step with the prevailing conventional wisdom, news releases questioning Bush administration rationales for war, for example: "U.S. Credibility Problems" "Tough Questions for Bush on Iraq Tonight" "White House Claims: A Pattern of Deceit".

Of course, most media didn't highlight that the Bush administration was falsifying the case against Iraq until it was too late. Fortunately, earlier this year, we had more success getting information out about Egypt. Shortly after the uprising started on Jan. 25, the Mubarak regime released criminals from prisons to rampage in neighborhoods to make it seems as though the uprising had turned violent. As that line was getting falsely echoed by media outlets, I called Philip Rizk, an independent documentary film maker I had met in Cairo a year earlier. He debunked the narrative and I featured him on a news release, writing "He is reporting on the Egyptian government apparently releasing criminals against protesters, looting, lack of police protection and other critical events." Rizk got on Al Jazeera English as a result, they began reporting his version of events as fact, and given their prominence at the time, that was adopted by most other media outlets. It's quite certain the truth would have gotten out eventually either way -- but the critical thing is for the truth to get out in time and thus to a wide audience. Thankfully, this time, it did.

In terms of asking questions, I should note that lots of my questions have been asked at the luncheon events, where the Press Club president chooses questions submitted on cards. Just recently, Mr. Hamrick used a question of mine at the Ron Paul event. I'd asked whether, given that Ron Paul has stated that Presidents Bush and Obama have violated the Constitution on War Powers and other critical issues, why hasn't he proposed impeachment as would seem to be the proper constitutional remedy, since he talks frequently of fidelity to the Constitution. This is example is illustrative because Ron Paul is a candidate I personally have written somewhat favorably about, but that doesn't stop me from asking him a tough question, pointing out an apparent contradiction in what he has said. This further shows my functioning is fundamentally journalistic, not attempting to simply plug political figures I might happen to agree with on various issues.

I've been published in numerous media outlets including the Washington Post, Newsday, Chicago Tribune, (opeds) the Nation, the Humanist, FAIR’s magazine Extra!, the Village Voice (analysis and investigative pieces), have produced reports for Independent World Television and have appeared on outlets including CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel.