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No easy answers on journalists giving to campaigns

Editors on panel agree on need for newsroom credibility, but not whether that means limiting the activities of reporters

By Michael Stoll
Posted Sept. 16, 2004
Dick Rogers of the Chronicle, Ed Cavagnaro of KCBS-AM and Steve Jones of the Bay Guardian wrestled with whether journalists should give money to politicians.

The hubbub over the discovery that some Bay Area journalists regularly contribute to political campaigns has led editors to stake out positions on how much freedom to grant their employees.

Participants in a panel discussion Tuesday night, sponsored by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, attempted to pick apart the issue, hoping to resolve the tension between a news organization's need for credibility and the journalist's individual right to free speech.

On the panel: Dick Rogers, the public editor of the San Francisco Chronicle; Ed Cavagnaro, news and programming director at the all-news radio station KCBS-AM; and Steve Jones, city editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. John McManus, director of Grade the News, moderated.

Mr. Rogers laid out the strictest view among the three, though he said he did not consider himself a "hard-liner on the subject of ethics," because the advocacy press plays by different rules.

"I think the reason you don't give money to politicians, or you don't take favors from politicians, is you have to maintain your independence," he told the gathering at the London Wine Bar in downtown San Francisco.

"Overwhelmingly our readers expect us to stay out of the business of politics," he said. "You can have your own private thoughts. You ought to be able to control them when it comes to going out and reporting a story. You ought to be able to have an open mind. ... I say that if you are giving money to politicians and then going out and presenting partisan political news, you are inherently not evenhanded, and you shouldn't be perceived as evenhanded."

The appearance of a conflict can do as much damage to a newsroom's ability to function as an actual conflict, he said. After Grade the News published a story revealing, among other things, that the Chronicle's letters editor had contributed $400 to the presidential campaign of John Kerry, Republicans began to demand "affirmative action" for conservative views, said Mr. Rogers, who writes an op-ed column and fields queries from readers.

Contributions as free speech

Cavagnaro, who weeks ago said his his radio station had no policy forbidding reporters from exercising their constitutional rights, qualified his stance: "Anyone in our newsroom has every right to contribute to a campaign. But we as newsroom managers have every right to assign them as we choose, and I don't think we're going to assign someone where we think there's a conflict of interest."

If he had known, for example, that one of his reporters had given money to the campaign of state Sen. Don Perata when the reporter still worked for him, "That would have impacted the way we assigned that reporter, because he did have some coverage of Perata and what he did," Mr. Cavagnaro said. "I think we would have approached him and said, 'You can't cover Perata,' or at least in certain circumstances, because of the perception of a conflict of interest."

A 'silly side issue'

But to Jones, all this fuss about the peccadilloes of individual reporters and low-level editors is a "silly side issue." The real problem is that top editors and the media corporations that employ them are constantly manipulating the political process, either through money or the editorial page.

"I think we have a crisis in our industry right now, and it's a crisis not caused by a journalist giving $200 bucks to a supervisorial candidate," he said. "It's a crisis caused by people who own newspapers and executives spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress and the FCC for rule changes on political contributions and on propping up the pay-to-play election system."

Everyone is biased, Mr. Jones said. He said his bias was as a "committed progressive," though not as a member of any political party or faction. He said that although the Bay Guardian doesn't have a written policy, reporters are expected not to be politically active in the topics they cover.

But for him that's not the most important question. "It's patently unfair of media executives to ask this of journalists right now," he said, "It's almost a class issue."

A third way: disclosure

Neither of the remedies -- avoidance of a conflict of interest or the isolation of the journalist from stories that would raise questions -- completely satisfied the audience. The tenor of their questions reflected an ambivalence about the credibility of newspapers in particular.

Doesn't the presence of editorial endorsements cause daily papers a credibility problem? Mr. Jones suggested that the editorial page and the news pages of the Chronicle created the impression that Gavin Newsom, who was elected mayor of San Francisco last fall, was the paper's candidate.

Mr. Rogers replied that a newspaper does not speak with one voice. He has never had interference from either the editorial page or the newspaper's corporate executives, he said. If the paper sometimes is "tone deaf" to stories, such as the groundswell of public opposition to the policies of the Federal Communications Commission, he said, it wasn't because of pressure from outside the newsroom. "It was our own damn fault that we didn't cover that story," he said.

Another questioner asked if maybe reporters should merely disclose their biases and what others may perceive as conflicts. But none of the panelists jumped at the idea of reporting their reporters' political activities or posting them on the Internet.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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