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Chronicle reassigns letters editor

Now working sports copy desk; status unsettled, says Guild

The San Francisco Chronicle has reassigned letters editor William Pates to the sports copy desk, two weeks after asserting that campaign contributions he made violated the paper's conflict-of-interest policy.

John Diaz, editor of the Chronicle's editorial page, said the transfer was necessary to maintain his page's reputation for political independence.

"It's not a disciplinary action," he said. "It's a matter of putting him in an assignment where his past contributions are not an issue."

But the union representing Chronicle employees, while relieved that Mr. Pates was not fired, still wants to negotiate his status. Some journalists at the paper said the policy was ambiguous and Mr. Pates was being unfairly punished.

Many contributors

The Chronicle put Mr. Pates on paid leave July 15 when Mr. Diaz discovered that Mr. Pates had made nearly $1,000 in contributions to local and national political candidates over the last five years, including $400 to John Kerry. The discovery came when Gradethenews.org -- as part of a larger story about Bay Area journalists who contribute to candidates and causes -- sought information about the donations from Mr. Pates. He in turn brought the inquiry to Mr. Diaz's attention.

Mr. Diaz said the contributions were an "egregious" violation of the Chronicle's ethics rules, which urge reporters to "take care not to create the appearance of a conflict of interest." The policy continues: "When there is a possible question, staff members should consult with the executive editor or his designee."

Mr. Diaz said that Mr. Pates had not previously told him of the donations. He said the credibility of the newspaper was at stake because Mr. Pates was in a key "gatekeeper" role for political opinions from readers.

'Vague' policy

But Mr. Pates, who works in the editorial department, separate from newsroom operations, told the Associated Press that he thought he was exempt. "Our policy is rather vague on the matter of conflicts of interest and ethics, and I didn't think that it applied to me," he said. Mr. Pates has worked for the Chronicle for 35 years.

Unlike some other newsrooms in the Bay Area, the Chronicle strictly enforces it conflict-of-interest policy. The issue has caused public strife within the staff numerous times in the last two years.

Several Chronicle staff members contacted Grade the News to say upper management's interpretation of the ethics rules was too strict in this case. They pointed out that the policy also directs employees to "use your best judgment." Others said the policy was not adequately explained to the staff. Some contended that it is a double standard for the Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chronicle, to apply rules to journalists that it does not apply to its owners.

For more views on the issue see "Make the call: Should journalists be allowed to contribute to political campaigns?" Also, listen to: "Journalism conflicts of interest" on KQED-FM's "Forum" program.

Political minefield

An article posted on Thursday to the San Francisco political Web site BeyondChron.org suggested that Mr. Pates' removal from his post was part of a purge of progressive voices from the paper.

Mr. Diaz said that the Web site's charge of "McCarthyism" at the paper was "absurd."

The article was written by Sarah Norr, the daughter of technology writer Henry Norr, who was disciplined and ultimately left the Chronicle in a conflict over his arrest for civil disobedience at a protest against the war in Iraq last year. Ms. Norr also reasserted her father's claim that state law prohibits all employers, including newspapers, from restricting the off-hours political speech of its journalists -- a point of legal contention.

Union negotiators defending Mr. Pates would not comment on the case except to say they disagreed with Mr. Pates' job transfer, which requires him to work nights.

"We're taking a look at the appropriateness of the assignment," said Doug Cuthbertson, executive officer of the San Francisco-based Northern California Media Workers Guild /Typographical Union.

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