Report cites journalists who contribute to politicians

Add another head-scratcher to the campaign season of scratched heads. Why on earth would journalists contribute to presidential campaigns — or any other campaign for that matter?

The Center for Public Integrity released a report today that shows a collection of journalists have donated nearly $400,000 to the presidential campaigns. Ninety-six percent of the money went to the Clinton campaign, the report said.

That’s about as basic an ethical breach as it gets and the fact that people will say it proves the media is in the pocket of the Clinton campaign shows the reason why.

Generally, the law obligates federal candidates only to disclose the names of people making contributions of more than $200 during a single election cycle, along with their addresses and employer and occupation. That means it’s likely that many more journalists have given the Clinton or Trump campaigns cash, but in amounts too small to trigger reporting requirements.

Together, these journalist-donors work for news organizations great and small, from The New York Times to sleepy, small-town dailies. While many of them don’t primarily edit or report on political news, some do.

And each news professional offers his or her own unique take on a basic question: Why risk credibility — even one’s livelihood — to help pad a presidential candidate’s campaign account?

One journalist, former ABC reporter Carole Simpson, says she’s a former journalist now and can do things she couldn’t do when she worked in the business.

But a San Diego news editor, who says he’s a libertarian, contributed to the Trump campaign because he’s got the right to.

Writer Reed Richardson says the report fails to indicate the scale of journalists contributing to political campaigns.

For the record, Minnesota Public Radio prohibits its news staffers from participating in party functions (caucuses, for example) or contributing to any campaigns.

MPR News staffers must keep their political views private. They may not seek public office. To do so would be to participate in the news instead of covering the news. It would also risk having the staffer’s political views associated with MPR, creating the perception of political bias. For the same reason, we do not participate in rallies or make appearances in support of a controversial cause or campaign. When covering political or partisan marches, we should be clearly distinguished as working journalists, with our credentials on display. Staffers may not raise money or contribute money to political or social causes that go beyond the groups described in the section headlined “Service in our communities.” We don’t advocate with yard signs or bumper stickers. In the event a staffer’s significant other wants to make a public political statement, a news leader should be advised. And even when our company publicly voices an opinion, MPR News staffers will maintain their journalistic impartiality.

One photojournalist said she contributed because it’s her freedom of speech. That’s true. Everyone has a right to contribute to political causes. No one has a right to work in a newsroom while doing so, however.

“It’s at best a double standard, and a questionable practice,” the Society of Professional Journalists says in its ethics guide on the question.

Many employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific than SPJ’s code about their employees’ involvement in politics. The SPJ code is merely advisory, but a journalist can be fired for violating an employer’s ethical rules. NPR’s code, for instance, says quite bluntly that “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies” concerning issues that NPR covers — which is pretty much everything.

Newspapers, in particular, have a longstanding practice of endorsing candidates in competitive political races. Although some readers think these endorsements signal a bias in the publication’s news coverage, SPJ encourages editorial pages to promote thoughtful debate on candidates and politics; letting readers know through endorsements which candidates share the newspaper’s vision is part of that discussion. Part of an editorial page’s responsibility, though, to take every appropriate opportunity to explain the firewall between news and opinion.

Reporters are not columnists or editorial writers. SPJ’s recommendation is that reporters not take a position on an issue, or in a candidate race, that they are covering. They may do so privately, but they definitely should not do so in a public or visible way.

Ironically, journalism is a profession protected by the same First Amendment that grants to all citizens the right to run for office or to support, by word, deed or cash, the people they would like to see elected. But journalists who want to be perceived as impartial must avoid any display of partisanship.

It’s not known if any Minnesota journalists appear on the list the Center for Public Integrity used in today’s report.

  • Jeff C.

    Maybe journalists give more money to the Clinton campaign because they are educated and have made an informed decision based on facts.

  • jon

    Isn’t the media basis for Clinton for a fairly decent reason? Didn’t Trump want to change the libel laws to basically shut down the press?

    I know it rings hollow in a conversation about ethics to simply say “the other guy started it.” (almost as bad as “Bill Clinton did worse!” or more recently “Joe Biden makes women uncomfortable too!”)

    But seriously, when you go after freedom of the press who really expects 96% of the press to get behind that?

    (I also know that the president can’t write laws… but I’m not sure that Trump knows that.)

    • And you’ve just demonstrated why there needs to be ethics guidelines.

      Here we have a story about approximately 0.7% of working media contributing to the Clinton campaign, and you characterized that as 96% of the press.

      • Math is hard…

        • tboom

          Of those surveyed, 7 out of 6 had trouble with math problems.

        • Dan

          Well, it is a much bigger (proportional) sample size than most election polls…

  • Gary F

    Just think of all the baby boom generation journalists getting into the business in the 70’s with the intention of being an independent unbiased Woodward and Bernstien type journalist, and not being a pawn for one particular candidate.

    • You’re describing me. And I do try to think about me as often as possible.

  • I don’t think MPR is that interested in running a broadcasting operation like the Hubbards.

  • MikeB

    I want journalists to fully participate in our civil society. I want them to vote. And I hadn’t given much thought about it until this post, but since campaign contributions are made public I’m in favor of knowing about these as well. I can see that those reporters covering a specific campaign should not contribute in that race. But overall, send your $ where you want.

    It should not be an occupational requirement to appear to to be apolitical. After being a news nerd for a few decades I’ve grown tired of any “appearances” for its own sake. There is no true objectivity but there is fairness, and that plays out over time. News organizations should loosen the reins a little so that news consumers get a better picture of what is happening rather than composing copy that strips out context by reporters who have an inside view.

    • Mike

      Various occupations have restrictions on donations to political candidates, not only journalists. Typically these are meant to mitigate the corruption that naturally occurs between business and politicians. In the case of journalists, I’d say these rules are wise. As a reader, I understand that everyone has bias, and I’m OK with that. But it’s one thing for a journalist to have a point of view, and another for them to give money to particular candidates. The latter is clearly a conflict of interest.

  • I don’t believe public or private has any bearing on what MPR News’ intention is. The policy mirrors those at most every media organization.

  • Sam M

    I’m all for transparency. In fact if they should all be forced to “declare” and a big “R” or “D” should be attached to their name at all times. I’m kidding but not completely.

    I like having as much information as possible and then shape my opinion after that.

    • Kassie

      You say you are kidding, but, if you weren’t how would this play out? How many people don’t actually consider themselves either? I sure don’t. Even if someone donates to one candidate, it doesn’t mean they would support another from that same party. Life is too complicated and nuanced for this sort of thing.

      • Sam M

        I was kidding about having to declare. I understand that many people including myself would have a hard time being one or the other all the time and under every circumstance.

        I do think transparency would be helpful for me but I can’t say that it would help our national conversation overall considering how divisive it currently is.

    • Will

      I agree we should know who the members of the press are supporting behind the scenes, it’s good to know who they might be donating to in the political arena.

  • Fred, Just Fred

    Oh come on, man. At some point, the denial has to get uncomfortable, Bob.

    • I’m quite comfortable. I don’t vote in any race I write about.

      • Fred, Just Fred

        So, in your opinion, it’s OK for news media and their journalists to shill for political candidates as long as they recuse themselves from the vote?

        *Pow* There goes my head.

  • Rob

    I’m totally O.K. with the notion that journalists shouldn’t be giving money to their preferred candidates, but the idea that journalists shouldn’t vote for anyone in election contests they cover is beyond the pale. Being a reporter shouldn’t mean that you give up the right to vote.

    • to my knowledge, no news media’s ethics policy includes a ban against voting — except at caucuses, which are party functions.

      • Rob

        So, your abstention from voting in any race you write about is totally a personal choice? Seems a tad extreme…