Professor Max Branscomb is an Elton John fan. So when one of his former Southwestern College students learned that Dr. Max was being honored by local journalists, the plan was obvious.
Rashid Hasirbaf, staff cartoonist in 2011, drew a picture of Branscomb as the English rocker, but with the flyaway Max hair. Wearing sunglasses.
The framed artwork was apt for a champion of the public’s right to light on public affairs.
In a 19th-floor conference room overlooking downtown and the Coronado bridge, Branscomb was saluted Tuesday night by the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as the 2014 winner of the Sunshine Award.
“A week doesn’t go by that we are not reminded how important it is to … bring sunshine when dealing with the government at every level,” said local SPJ President J.W. August of KGTV, Channel 10.
Former San Diego Councilwoman Donna Frye — now president of the open-government group Californians Aware — spoke of pursuing a ballot measure to assure access to public records amid the Balboa Park Centennial Committee implosion and the brush with an email cutoff at City Hall.
Melinda Nish, president and superintendent of the Chula Vista community college, also addressed the short ceremony drawing 35 guests — half of them current or former Branscomb students and college staff.
Nish listed national awards given the The Sun, the student paper, and its sister magazine, El Sol. She also shared her appreciation for Branscomb’s help as a fill-in public information officer when she took over in December 2011 in the wake of the pay-for-contractor-play scandal involving college leaders and Superintendent Raj Chopra.
Branscomb said the next day: “I am actually still in shock that the SPJ, an organization I admire so very deeply, would select me for its Sunshine Award.
“I woke up this morning and had to think for a few moments, ‘Did that really happen last night?’ There are so many deserving journalists, elected officials and citizens that have done so much to promote transparency and serve our community.”
Branscomb noted that his students were the ones writing the stories, taking the photos, drawing the cartoons and designing the pages that won a slew of national awards before and during college administration scandals of recent years.
“I merely bask in their reflected glory,” said Branscomb, faculty adviser for 18 years who in 2009 was named winner of the national SPJ’s Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award.
In accepting the fifth such award given by the San Diego group, Branscomb told why he’s “so fanatic about free speech.”
He recalled neighborhood breakfasts hosted by his grandparents on hot summer days in southern Idaho — leading to sizzling debates on the issues of the day.
“The last thing [my teacher grandmother] always said was, ‘Well, you know, Billy Joe has some strong opinions about that, and I don’t always agree. But he’s got a right to what he thinks,’” Branscomb said.
“They’d always kind of end their statements with that.”
In junior high, Max himself was challenged on his right to express political views — but his father came to his defense.
“I’ve never stopped fighting for free speech — for my students and other people,” he said in the law offices of ShepardMullin (made available by SPJ board member Guylyn Cummins, a law firm partner).
On Wednesday, Branscomb reflected on the award.
“What I think it illustrates is that good journalism can and should be done at every level, including community college, where our society’s newly minted adults are for the first time practicing journalism with professional standards,” he said.
“It also shows that young journalists who follow the SPJ Code of Ethics and strive to practice like professionals can have a serious impact on the community and influence positive change.”
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