I found a recent story by MSNBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman troubling. Dedman researched the public records of the Federal Election Commission from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign and found that 143 journalists across the United States have made donations to political campaigns.
Wrote Dedman: “Whether you sample your news feed from ABC or CBS (or, yes, even NBC and MSNBC), whether you prefer Fox News Channel or National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker, some of the journalists feeding you are also feeding cash to politicians, parties or political action committees.”
It’s not just mainstream news outlets that made the list. A correspondent for MTV News is on it. And it’s not just national media outlets, either. Dedman lists journalists at TV stations in places like Minneapolis, Wichita, Omaha and Memphis and at scores of newspapers from Daytona Beach to Des Moines to Lincoln, Neb.
Dedman’s research showed that 125 of the 143 journalists donated to Democrats and liberal causes, 16 to Republicans and two to both parties.
I think it was in a media ethics class when I was studying journalism that I heard an instructor say that journalists don’t sign petitions, and they don’t get involved in politics. That means they don’t make donations to candidates or parties. They don’t help with campaigns. And they don’t put candidates’ bumper stickers on their cars or signs in their yards.
Writes Dedman: “There’s a longstanding tradition that journalists don’t cheer in the press box. They have opinions, like anyone else, but they are expected to keep those opinions out of their work. Because appearing to be fair is part of being fair, most mainstream news organizations discourage marching for causes, displaying political bumper stickers or giving cash to candidates.”
Traditionally, according to Dedman, many news organizations have applied the political involvement rules only to political reporters and editors. He contends that was “summed up by Abe Rosenthal, the former New York Times editor, who is reported to have said, ‘I don’t care if you sleep with elephants as long as you don’t cover the circus.'”
More and more, though, media outlets that prohibit political involvement are applying the prohibition to all journalists, not just those who cover politics. Dedman notes that it will be the movie critic who covers Al Gore’s documentary on global warming.
Surprisingly though, some media outlets, according to Dedman, have no policy at all on political involvement. And even more surprising is the fact that some media outlets think there’s nothing wrong with journalists donating to candidates, political parties or political organizations.
Ultimately, I guess, it will be the consumers of news who will decide which media outlets they trust to supply them with impartial political news coverage. And journalists’ political involvement — or lack of it — may be one of the deciding factors.
Copyright July 16, 2008. All rights reserved.