Should journalists contribute to politicians?

September 16, 2010
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Three Indiana newspaper executives show up on a newly published list of journalists and media professionals who donated to politicians running for a federal office in the 2010 election cycle. The list, compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, includes:

—Dick Inskeep of The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne. Inskeep, who is retired as publisher of the paper but remains president of The Journal Gazette Co., made two donations totaling $4,800 to Dr. Tom Hayhurst, a former Fort Wayne city council member and the Democrat running against Republican Marlin Stutzman for the 3rd Congressional District seat held by Mark Souder. Souder resigned in May after admitting to an affair.

—Jeff Brown, president of Home News Enterprises in Columbus and the fifth generation of the family to manage the newspaper company. Brown gave $1,000 to U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican from Columbus. Pence’s 6th District all but surrounds the city, where Home News publishes The Republic. Two other papers the company owns, the Daily Journal in Franklin and the Daily Reporter in Greenfield, are near the district’s western border.

—Tom Gettinger, co-owner and managing editor of the Sullivan Daily Times, gave $250 to U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a Democrat whose 8th District includes the southeastern Indiana town. Ellsworth early this year opted to give up his seat to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Evan Bayh. Ellsworth is opposed by Republican Dan Coats. Coats, incidentally, received $400 from a Nashville, Tenn., sports writer, Harold Huggins.

To see the entire list of journalist donations, go here and look for the Media Donations link. State and local donations were beyond the scope of the survey, so the numbers may well have been greater had the more localized campaigns been included.

Whether it’s significant that journalists are donating to politicians depends on one’s point of view. It’s certainly an ongoing discussion in the field. The independent, not-for-profit Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the flow of money in politics, stops short of condemning the practice.

Traditionalists argue that donations create a conflict of interest or at least a perception of a conflict that undermines news organizations’ credibility; a publisher’s involvement especially can open a newspaper to charges of influencing news stories. The other end of the spectrum contends that journalists are no less citizens than anyone else, so shouldn’t be restricted from taking part in politics.

Newspapers have some of the strictest ethics policies on political activity. The larger papers in particular pointedly forbid news employees from participating in politics at any level, donations included. Move beyond newspapers to broadcast media, magazines and online sites, and policies differ dramatically.

It should be pointed out that the authority of executives like Inskeep, Brown and Gettinger extends beyond the news side to include advertising and circulation, so they’re not news employees. They also play influential, if not deciding, roles in setting the papers’ official positions on op/ed pages—a responsibility decidedly outside the definition of news reporting and editing.

Where do you think the line should be drawn?

  • Sunshine
    No different than Fox News contributing $1mil to Republicans. Let them, as long as it's all public information. Besides, if you forbid them, they will find a way indirectly.
  • Revealing
    These people will have political opinions anyway, whether they're allowed to donate or not - this just puts their leanings out in the open where their readership will know who they favor or not and will judge them (sometime loudly) accordingly.
  • Double Standards
    Oh my, when corporations dump millions into the pockets of republican politcal candidates all is honky dory. But a reporter does it and the sky fall in. What a two faced stand.
    • big money both parties
      University of California $1,648,685 Goldman Sachs $1,013,091 Harvard University $878,164 Microsoft Corp $852,167 Google Inc $814,540 JPMorgan Chase & Co $808,799 Citigroup Inc $736,771 Time Warner $624,618 Sidley Austin LLP $600,298 Stanford University $595,716 National Amusements Inc $563,798 WilmerHale LLP $550,668 Columbia University $547,852 Skadden, Arps et al $543,539 UBS AG $532,674 IBM Corp $532,372 General Electric $529,855 US Government $513,308 Morgan Stanley $512,232 Latham & Watkins $503,295 short list of obama's donors

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    Sponsored by
    1. By Mr. Lee's own admission, he basically ran pro-bono ads on the billboard. Paying advertisers didn't want ads on a controversial, ugly billboard that turned off customers. At least one of Mr. Lee's free advertisers dropped out early because they found that Mr. Lee's advertising was having negative impact. So Mr. Lee is disingenous to say the city now owes him for lost revenue. Mr. Lee quickly realized his monstrosity had a dim future and is trying to get the city to bail him out. And that's why the billboard came down so quickly.

    2. Merchants Square is back. The small strip center to the south of 116th is 100% leased, McAlister’s is doing well in the outlot building. The former O’Charleys is leased but is going through permitting with the State and the town of Carmel. Mac Grill is closing all of their Indy locations (not just Merchants) and this will allow for a new restaurant concept to backfill both of their locations. As for the north side of 116th a new dinner movie theater and brewery is under construction to fill most of the vacancy left by Hobby Lobby and Old Navy.

    3. Yes it does have an ethics commission which enforce the law which prohibits 12 specific items. google it

    4. Thanks for reading and replying. If you want to see the differentiation for research, speaking and consulting, check out the spreadsheet I linked to at the bottom of the post; it is broken out exactly that way. I can only include so much detail in a blog post before it becomes something other than a blog post.

    5. 1. There is no allegation of corruption, Marty, to imply otherwise if false. 2. Is the "State Rule" a law? I suspect not. 3. Is Mr. Woodruff obligated via an employment agreement (contractual obligation) to not work with the engineering firm? 4. In many states a right to earn a living will trump non-competes and other contractual obligations, does Mr. Woodruff's personal right to earn a living trump any contractual obligations that might or might not be out there. 5. Lawyers in state government routinely go work for law firms they were formally working with in their regulatory actions. You can see a steady stream to firms like B&D from state government. It would be interesting for IBJ to do a review of current lawyers and find out how their past decisions affected the law firms clients. Since there is a buffer between regulated company and the regulator working for a law firm technically is not in violation of ethics but you have to wonder if decisions were made in favor of certain firms and quid pro quo jobs resulted. Start with the DOI in this review. Very interesting.