Monday, September 17, 2007

Political donations should be off-limits for journalists

(Published 6/30/07)

In a report published last week, said that of the 143 journalists included in its study of their political donations, 125 contributed to Democratic candidates and causes, 16 to Republicans and two to both parties.

The report (which, incidentally, likely doubled MSNBC’s usual web traffic for the month), was happily welcomed by the right. It proves the left-leaning bias of the press, GOPers smugly said.

What struck me about the report was not the breakdown of the donors by party (honestly, is there anyone out there who really believes that journalists are politically evenly divided?). Instead, it was the unapologetic, even combative attitude of many of the journalists MSNBC contacted for reaction.

For example, MSNBC reported that New Yorker writer Mark Singer wrote the magazine’s profile of Howard Dean during the 2004 campaign, then gave $250 to America Coming Together and its efforts to defeat President Bush. In the report, Singer admits that "probably there should be a rule against (journalists donating to political causes)." But, he notes, "there’s a rule against murder. If someone had murdered Hitler - a journalist interviewing him had murdered him - the world would be a better place. As a citizen, I can only feel good about participating in a get-out-the-vote effort to get rid of George Bush, who has been the most destructive president in my lifetime. I certainly don’t regret it."

Rule One, the bedrock principle, of journalism is objectivity, one’s ability to tell something fairly. And, as MSNBC notes, "appearing to be fair is part of being fair." Those who tell the story are expected to be above the fray.

The journalists interviewed by MSNBC defend their activity as something that doesn’t compromise their ability to be objective. Their professional output is not impacted by what they do on their personal time. Trust us, they say.

But forgive the public if they don’t, especially when donors include people like - I’m not making this up - the ethics columnist at The New York Times.

In what must be a coincidence, MSNBC also said Americans don’t trust the news or newspeople as much as they used to. Even though two-thirds of those polled say they prefer to get news from sources without a particular point of view, 72 percent say news organizations tend to favor one side, the highest level of skepticism in the poll’s 20-year history.

Wait - how’d people get that idea? Personal political activity doesn’t manifest itself in reporters’ professional output, remember? They told us so.

The MSNBC report has led to significant fallout in the industry. Embarrassed boardroom brass are, ahem, "reassessing" their internal political activity policies because of it.

The bottom line is that journalists are called to a higher standard when they assume the public trust of their posts.

It’s always been part of our job, humbly accepted by those who assume these duties and rightfully expected by those who read and watch us. If journalists can’t help themselves from being more activist than reporter, they’re in the wrong line of work.

Journalists need not check their personal opinions at the doors of their jobs. Indeed, no one is without bias; that’s a simple fact of humanity. What sets journalists apart is their ability - and commitment - to recognize their personal leanings and account for them when telling a story, so that the story is as fair and accurate as it can be.

One doesn’t meet that lofty measure by writing checks for political purposes. That’s always been the case. The difference now is that a disturbing number of reporters don’t seem to understand that basic principle of fairness - or care.

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