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Checkbook journalism?

No, this is not dotCommonweal's first invocation of Paris Hilton. I'm referring instead to one of those other "what-were-they-thinking" storieslast week, this onefrom MSNBC. (HT to "Get Religion") Investigative reporter Bill Dedman tracked down campaign contributions made by journalists to candidates over the past several years. At first I thought they must all be TV types, as they are the only journos with enough disposable income to write a check to a political campaign. But then I perused the list, and it wasn't pretty, at least to my mind. I have enough Puritan DNA left to bleed into my journalistic ethics that I register as an independent. So contributing to a politician wouldn't even occur to me, and I still don't think it should occur to any journalist. And if it did, they should be barred from writing for the news pages, at least.

On the other hand, Dedman contacted many of the journalists for an explanation of their decision. Many did not respond, others said they regretted the decision on reflection. Interestingly, the longest exchange is with Margot Pattersonof the National Catholic Reporter. I'm not sure why Dedman included a Catholic publication and, for that matter, why there weren't others from other sectarian publications. But Patterson was not backing down: She said her position was more honest than the "hypocrisy" of reporters who take positions but don't back them up with donations.

Hmmm...I'll stick withCaesar's wife on this one, and keep my critics guessing.

About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.



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I don't see any problem unless/until readers learn of a reporter's partisan political donation. After that, it's "perception is reality" with a reporter's journalistic credibility on the line. At this point, the reporter must be prepared to take the heat --- from the boss, readers, etc.As a free people, we need to know what's transpiring in the world. Unbiased reporters are an essential ingredient here. If readers come to regard --- for whatever reason --- a reporter's stories as lacking journalistic objectivity, then the reporter and his/her employer may have a real problem on their hands.My comments are directed to reporting the news, not to writing editorials. As for authoring "analyses," it likely depends.

Stopping a journalist from campaigning will not prevent him from actively supporting a candidate. Worse than any journalists are the newspapers themselves. Newspapers for the most part give favorable coverage to whom they support and negative to the ones they do not. Objectivity is not to be found.I like the NY Times because it gives more information than anyone else to help one decide. The best example is to be involved in a story and watch the newspaper discover it. Makes one wonder about history. neighborhodsTruth is in the eye of the beholder.

"The donors include...the ethics columnist at the New York Times."That one surprised me the most, but there don't seem to be any profession-wide regulations prohibiting the practice of donations. Nevertheless, like judges and umpires and other professions in which credibility is important, journalists should avoid even the appearance of an impropriety. Credibility is very hard to maintain, but very easy to lose. I think David Gibson is correct, and very wise, to zealously guard his impartiality.Here's a suggestion: Perhaps a journalist writing a piece about Senator So-and-So should be required to disclose in the article any donation that the journalist may have made to the Senator. (This would be similar to a journalist revealing that he or she holds a stock or bond the journalist is writing about.) I'll bet political donations from journalists would decrease dramatically.

The bigger and more intractable problem with the contemporary media is that they're often too lazy and incompetent to tell the truth. One of the reasons we're in Iraq is that, regardless of where their donations went, so many reporters simply didn't question what they were told, or didn't know enough to even know that they should question it, or didn't want to miss out on tennis matches or condo parties with the people they're supposed to be covering. (The very idea of an "embedded" journalist is outrageous. "Shill" is more apt.) The marriage of Andrea Mitchell and Alan Greenspan, or of James Carville and Mary Matalin, tells us more about the culture of mainstream journalism than the contents of checkbooks.

Truth is not in the eye of anyone.No one is without biases and prejudicies.Journalists who are writing commentary and opinion pieces are doing just that. We may expect them to be fair but we should not imagine they have no opinions. (There is one good fairness test. Any jouirnalist who agrees with you is being fair.)Journalists who are acting as reporters of fact are never free of bias. Nonetheless some are more disciplined than others, ie., they are less inclined to let their preconceptions determine what they see as the facts. It is useful to follow a story in more than one news source. I would be more worried about poiticians contributing to journalists than journalists contributing to politicians.

Ditto to Joe Gannon's post. David, why don't you or some other contributor start a thread on our marvelous Catholics on the Supreme Court who feel that what they declare is the Constitution regardless of precedent.They debilitated McCain-Feingold, weakened free speech, and ignored the vital tradition of separation of church and state. What is next Ex Corde Romana/Roberts?

Getting back to the main point for a moment...I think many people tend to think of (and anathematize) the "media" as TV anchors, pundits and so-called opinionmakers, whereas I tend to think of the media--my own bias and experience at work here--as the vast majority of journalists working in newsrooms across the country. These would tend to be print media, but also radio and television reporters, esepcially for local outlets. These reporters are producing news stories about the events of the day, or week. Sure, they will have personal opinions and political sympathies. But I am enough of an idealist to think that these should not come into play in the vast majority of stories that appear in the paper. It still surprises me how few people comprehend the difference between the editorial and op-ed pages and the rest of the newspaper, for example. To simply throw up our hands and say all journos are biased so just lay it out there would be a travesty. It would be giving into the "Fox-ization" of news. Because they have corrupted the phrase "fair and balanced" does not mean that fair and balanced is not an ideal to aim for. Yes, I am idealistic, but that is what journalists (and religionists) should be, I think. And yes, media outlets let their bias show (or ignorance) in news pages too often. No, we can't go back to the old days of no bylines on stories, nor would my ego want that, frankly. But there is a balance (that word again) between knowing the author of a piece and trying to show that the author does not matter t the content. I often understand the tactic of female reporters (or men, for that matter) who use only their first initials in order to disguise their gender. Because as you know, the greatest bias may not be what the writer brings to an article, but what the reader brings to it. Let's be honest with ourselves--How many times have you read a piece and glanced back to see if it was written by a man or woman? Or, for that matter, do you read a piece on the church and try to figure out the religious identity of the writer? That could be relevant. On the other hand, not knowing that information forces us, the reader, to ask what it is we are looking around for a reason we don't like the piece. Is it because we don't like the truth it reveals? Or it doesn't say what we want it to say? I have always loved a line by a friend of mine, a Jew who teaches at a Southern school. When I asked how he fared among the Bible Belt students as a Jewish professor of religion he said: "When I say something I agree with they say, Well, he's a Jew so he'd know what he's talking about. When I say something they disagree with they say, Well, he's a Jew, what does he know about Jesus?"

Bill Mazella hit the nail on the head not once but twice on this thread. The major problem is the big media conglomerates and the power they hold in what's presented and editorialized.This issue is even more vital, as Bill notes, as our beloved Roberts Court is obviouly at the service of the moneyed and powerful, if yesterday's decisions mean anything -at least the 5 majority of them

There is a difference betwen saying everyone has some biases--which I take to be the human condition--and saying that a particular piece of reportage is biased. Egregious bias in reportage is not easy to hide from the critical reader. More subtle biases of selection, emphasis and tone inevitably arise from time to time. There are honest journalists who are trying to tell a story that needs to be told. But I would say that honesty is quite compatible with bias, ie., a tendency to look at situations with a certain mindset.

I do agree that the big media conglomerates are worrisome--though I also think we shouldn't glamorize smaller papers of the past, which were often run by small-town autocrats who exercised more control than any Citizen Kane. But I don't think it is Big Media in the scary, consiraorial sense that many believe, pulling the levers to get a blend of stories with certain slants to help their interests. Big Media executives usually don't have a clue as to content. The real culprit is the power of the marketplace--that dictates content. Sure, journalists are more "liberal" than the rest of America. But the pressure or bias does not come from them. It comes from the need for the media outlet to make money, lots of it. Political bias is ultimately negligible, I suspect. Is it liberals leading with Paris Hilton stories? No, it's cause Paris sells. It's the audience, it's the bottom-line, it's stockholders demanding results. Exhibit A is of course Uncle Rupert. Conservative? I guess. But a businessman above all.

Donations to politicians are the least of the problems. Ignorance and the tendency to accept "authorative" versions may be the biggest (eg., police spokesman at the scene of a crimge). I am posting here an excerpt from Pat Lang's site with a quote from Nir Rosen on CNN; Rosen has seemed to me a remarkably knowledgable commentator on Iraq and the ME. Here, he tries to tell a CNN reporter what's really going on in Gaza; the reporter really doesn't want to believe him. In this case, I've read other stuff that suggests Rosen is at least right about U.S. support for Fatah militants in Gaza. Note that the CNN "reporter" has bought the version (really the official version) he's read and heard in the U.S. media, and can't believe the words of someone who's been there and seen that.NIR Rosen, June 24 on CNN"NIR ROSEN, JOURNALIST: Well, it already did. We created a civil war. This is actually outrageous. Outgoing U.N. envoy to the Middle East peace process, Alvaro De Soto, himself accused the U.S. of fomenting a civil war by training, funding and arming Fatah thugs and inserting them into Gaza to destabilize the Hamas government. We never gave them a chance. They were democratically elected in an election that was widely recognized as free and fair, even by former President Jimmy Carter. And then the U.S., along with Israel, Jordan and Egypt trained these gangs and actually put them in Gaza to overthrow the Hamas government. And, of course, it's actually backfired and Fatah was overthrown. But all you're going to do is isolate and further radicalize Hamas. And so when you say that the U.S. is seeking to ease tensions in the Middle East, I disagree with you. These are tensions that the U.S. actually created in the Middle East.ROBERTS: Nir, I mean what are you talking about, we have Fatah thugs being sent into the country to wage war with Hamas?ROSEN: Well, they were trained by the U.S. General Dayton (ph), our envoy to the peace process, was responsible for a program, along with Elliot Abrams (ph), the deputy national security adviser for the Middle East, and they actually trained Fatah in the West Banks. The Jordanian special forces created the Fatah Badr brigade. The Egyptians, as well, trained Fatah in Egypt. The United Arab Emirates actually sent money and arms. And then they were allowed to enter Gaza and then began to attack Hamas. I mean this was an existential threat to a democratically elected government. What we've done is overthrow a government that was elected. The U.S. . . ."Pat Lang's site:

Exhibit A is Rupert and all about power. Conservatives are convenient to him now but he does talk to Hilary and Bill. Ted Turner rightly states that Rupert wants to rule the world. (The Chinese are weloming his money if not his influence.)Such a loss that Turner does not call the shots at CNN. Turner has got to be the man when it comes to productive media. That guy at the times who covers Africa and its woes is pretty good too. All in all David you are the exception that proves the rule. Unfortunately there is a reason why the media is viewed even lower than the used car salesperson. " Oscar Wilde was a big fan of journalism. Hesaid journalism disseminates the opinions of the uninformed, thereby keeping us in touch with the ignorance of the community. Finley Peter Dunne suggested that the chief purposes of journalism are to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. H. L. Mencken complained that the average newspaper has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat andthe taste of a designer of celluloid valentines." are like actors to a certain extent. They have a forum which too often exposes their shallowness rather than good sense.

Bill:You go too far. The NYT and the WSJ both do some good investigative reporting. I would also mention the PBS news with Jim Lehrer. Actually history is always being rewritten. You expect journalists to get everything right? You are right about Murdoch. Nonetheless the TLS remains a marvel whle the NYT Book Review is scarcely worth looking at.

Check out today's NPR report on Mr. Murdoch and his handwritten and signed notes to Editors.On a different tack, I have a question about conflicts of interst,It was announced this morning that the Archsiocese of santa Fe is donating $500,000 to the University of New Mexico to estblish a chair of Roman Catholic studies and hopes to raise one and a half million more for the project,Is this the usual?I"m a worry warts on who controls what.

It's stunning to read that the ethicist for The Times doesn't see a difference between donating to a political advocacy organization such as and to the Boy Scouts. In my book, all of these journalists have crossed the line. One wonders exactly where they would draw the line on a conflict of interest - especially those who both cover politics and make campaign donations. How can they be fit to critique public officials' conflicting interests? How can they cover the way campaign contributions influence public policy? In excusing themselves, they sound remarkably like the politicians they cover. They've adopted the standard of ethics that prevails in the political world. And that's part of the larger problem some cite above: reporters who adopt the values of the people they cover. I hope the MSNBC piece encourages these and other journalists to reflect.

Bob--I found your mention of UNM establishing an endowed chair in Catholic Studies interesting. I wasn't aware that there were secular universities with such positions. A quick google search revealed that there are at least several others, however: UC-Santa Barbara, University of Kentucky, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Rochester. I'm sure there are others, too. In each of the four instances I mentioned, however, the endowed chair was established by private donations, not by the Church itself as at UNM. In fact, at UCSB, the chair was endowed by investor Charles Schwab, who apparently has an interest in endowing chairs representing a variety of religious traditions. As you noted, it will be interesting to see if there are any problematic "control" issues at UNM. (Sorry for going off on a tangent in this thread, but it seemed to be winding down anyway.)

Amen, Amen, Paul Moses.

Donating to a political candidate is probably not wise for a journalist if he or she wants to be perceived as unbiased, but not donating to a political candidate does not eliminate bias, it simply removes the evidence of bias. Donating to a political candidate is not the same kind of conflict that arises if one is being paid by a political candidate (or any other party that might receive coverage). In the former instance, one is expressing one's existing opinions, which, presumably, are already contributing to any bias in one's reporting. In the latter, there is a clear risk that one's reporting will be shaped by the expectation of further payment.

Should someone who writes about the Church for news agencies be foreclosed from donating to his own church? That's not a trick question, because fundamentally I don't see why the issue is any different. If you write about politics the main issue is perception of bias, just as it would be if you write about the Church, or about the BSA (which has certainly had its own share of controversy in the last two decades). Bias and conflict are different animals. Bias is inherent in being a knowledgeable human who has values. Conflict arises when your own interests are directly affected by what you write.

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