Putting money where our mouths are

Posted: Jan 31, 2004 12:00 AM

Journalism is a daily struggle. Every reporter, writer and editor has to come in to work, set aside his or her personal biases, and produce fair news stories about an endless and unpredictable variety of people and events. That?s difficult enough. But imagine trying to remain objective when you?ve got a financial stake in the outcome.

Unfortunately, many journalists do, as media critic Howard Kurtz reported in The Washington Post. ?More than 100 journalists and executives at major media companies ? have made political contributions in recent years,? he wrote.

The donations ranged from the right of the political spectrum to the left. For example, FOX News anchor Neil Cavuto gave $1,000 at a fundraising dinner for President Bush two years ago, while Troy Roberts, a correspondent for CBS News, contributed $1,000 to Hillary Clinton?s Senate campaign.

In these cases, the conflicts of interest are obvious. How can Cavuto present ?fair and balanced? reporting on the Democratic presidential primaries when we know he wants to see the eventual winner of those primaries defeated in November? It?s at least plausible that he would ask tough questions of the frontrunner and lob softballs at the cellar dwellers, hoping to pump up a weaker Democratic candidate.

This works in reverse, too. According to Roberts? bio on the CBS News Web site, he covered the Clinton and Dole presidential campaigns in 1996 for the network. Well, we know he donated money to Bill Clinton?s wife just four years after he supposedly reported objectively on the president?s reelection bid. Isn?t it safe to assume he was already at least something of a Clinton supporter four years earlier, and that he might have somehow slanted his reporting on that ?96 campaign?

Sometimes the connection is even more direct. Kurtz wrote that Jami Floyd, an ABC correspondent who reported on the 2000 Florida recount, gave $500 to the Democratic National Committee that year. Since she is a legal reporter, it makes sense Floyd would be assigned to cover the biggest legal battle of the year. And maybe she was completely fair in her reporting.

But, at least subconsciously, she had to realize that if Bush beat Gore in Florida, her $500 was wasted. It?s not a backbreaking amount to lose, but still raises fair, and avoidable, questions about her objectivity.

Other journalists, with no visible connection to politics, pony up as well. ?USA Today consumer reporter Jayne O'Donnell gave Dean $250 and food writer Jerry Shriver donated $1,000 to John Kerry's presidential effort,? Kurtz wrote. Los Angeles Times food writer Charles Perry explained away the fact that he has donated more than $2,500 to the Republican Party by saying, ?I cover a non-political area.?

Maybe. But one of the beauties of journalism is that you never know what?s going to happen tomorrow. Perry could be assigned a story about John Kerry?s favorite restaurants. Or he might find himself the only reporter in the area when a different Democratic candidate makes a dramatic policy announcement, or colossal rhetorical blunder. (Yeaaaaaahhhhhhh!) The Times should be able to count on him for unbiased coverage of those events. Because of his contributions, it can?t.

Many media organizations, including The Washington Post, ban journalists from making any donations to any political campaigns. The New York Times implemented a similar ban on newsroom personnel last year. That?s a sensible policy. And even journalists who are allowed by their employer to donate (like employees at CBS News or Newsweek) should voluntarily agree to withhold political contributions.

This doesn?t mean journalists should completely divorce themselves from politics. They should, by all means, vote. It?s difficult to imagine anyone better qualified to cast a ballot than a journalist. After all, many spend hours each day interviewing candidates and pouring over policy positions. Besides, becoming a journalist shouldn?t cost a person his civic right to vote.

However, every profession brings its own limitations. Athletes can?t bet on their games. Just ask Pete Rose. And journalists shouldn?t contribute to political campaigns. We could more easily believe they?ve checked their personal biases when we know they?ve put away their checkbooks.