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Blood from stones
A blogger digs up the unexpected: Political contributions from journalists. Plus, Kerry and that $87 billion, and a massive failure of intelligence.

SILLY ME. I’d always thought one of the few perks of working in the news business was that you had a good excuse for not giving money to politicians. Now I know that quite a few journalists do so anyway.

That knowledge springs largely from the efforts of Michael Petrelis, a San Francisco–based AIDS activist and Ralph Nader supporter who has been posting journalists’ political contributions on his weblog, Petrelis Files (www.mpetrelis.blogspot.com). It’s not that no one could have done it before him. After all, he relies on well-known resources such as OpenSecrets.org and Tray.com. But until Petrelis came along, almost no one had thought to plug the names of journalists and news organizations into these databases. Or at least they didn’t publish the results.

Thanks to Petrelis, I know that Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of the New Yorker, has donated $900 to John Kerry’s presidential campaign, among other contributions — including one to former secretary of labor Robert Reich’s 2002 campaign for governor of Massachusetts. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, has given nearly $150,000 to various candidates and causes since 1984, Petrelis has found, including EMILY’s List, Bill Bradley’s 1990 Senate campaign in New Jersey, California senator Dianne Feinstein, and — yes — Reich.

Ironically, Petrelis — who began his crusade this past spring, after a friend was dropped as a New York Times freelancer for his own political activities — says he has no problem with journalists who donate to politicians. "It would trouble me if editors said that First Amendment right does not apply to reporters who make donations," he says. Rather, he asserts, it’s all about "transparency, transparency, transparency" — that is, the problem isn’t that they’ve given, it’s that they haven’t disclosed. And though he has put most of his energy into exposing fellow liberals, he is quick to note that conservative media figures such as Rupert Murdoch and William Buckley are big givers as well.

But Petrelis’s philosophy is not shared by many mainstream news organizations, some of which have policies specifically prohibiting political activity. The San Francisco Chronicle recently placed its letters editor on paid leave, then transferred him to the copy desk, after it learned that a Stanford University–based Web site was planning a story on his financial contributions to the Kerry campaign and three local candidates.

Locally, the Boston Globe reported in a July 22 item on Petrelis’s activities that two Boston newsroom employees had made donations: Chris Donnelly, a librarian at the Boston Herald, who’d given $3200 to Kerry and other Democratic causes, and Henry Riemer, a sports statistician at the Globe, who’d donated $1700 to Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. But the Globe didn’t dig deep enough: the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance has its own searchable Web site for state campaigns. Petrelis forwarded to me — and I verified — the names of several other donating journalists, including Globe copy editor Stephen Hatch, who’d given $72 to the Green-Rainbow Party; Globe sportswriter Gordon Edes, who’d donated $400 to a legislative candidate named Ronald Lamothe; and Herald copy editor Richard Swanson, who’s given $200 to State Representative Michael Festa.

Globe policy prohibits newsroom employees from making political contributions, says editor Martin Baron, although he notes that Edes’s contributions were made in 2002, before the policy was made explicit. (The paper’s spokesman, BMaynard Scarborough, says no such rule applies to employees on the business side except for publisher Richard Gilman, who falls under a New York Times Company policy barring publishers from making donations. Scarborough points out that the newsroom ultimately reports to Gilman.) Baron adds that he intends to remind staff members of those rules, and that the matter will likely be addressed in a comprehensive ethics policy being drafted. Baron says that the ban exists so as not to "create the impression that we are being partisan."

Neither Herald editorial director Ken Chandler nor the paper’s spokeswoman, Gwen Gage, responded to requests for comment. But staff writer Tom Mashberg, the Newspaper Guild’s top newsroom officer, says, "As far as I know, there’s never been any directive barring staffers from making political contributions." And Guild president Lesley Phillips, a Herald staff member, says such a policy would be subject to collective bargaining.

A quick search of Boston’s electronic media revealed no contributions from newsroom employees. John Davidow, managing editor and news director at WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), says journalists at his station are prohibited from "signing petitions, making donations, fundraising, hosting parties."

Media ethicists generally agree that rules prohibiting political donations are wise. Stephen Burgard, director of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, says that if donations were allowed, "I think there’s a problem for the public believing that that journalist is going to be able to fairly and impartially cover a news event." Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, based in Washington, DC, agrees — and says the rule should be applied to opinion columnists as well, since even advocates shouldn’t be perceived as having a stake in the outcome. "The role of the journalist in society is that of the committed observer," Rosenstiel says. "There are certain things you don’t do." Neither Burgard nor Rosenstiel, though, was as troubled by the notion of writers at opinion journals making donations — although Burgard says he would prefer that they not.

Rick Hertzberg did not respond to a request for comment. But he recently told the Baltimore Sun that the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, had approved his contributions on the grounds that he is paid expressly to give his opinion.

Katrina vanden Heuvel told me that she considers her left-liberal magazine to be part of the activist community, and that she is proud of Nation writers who have marched in demonstrations, ranging from the nuclear-freeze movement in the 1980s to protests against the war in Iraq. "I’ve never allowed my donations or whatever relationships I have to influence the magazine in any way, save for the fact that I believe what I believe in the first place," vanden Heuvel says. "Being a journalist/editor does not take away my right to free speech, as I see it."

Besides, vanden Heuvel favors a reform that would make the entire matter moot: publicly financed political campaigns. That, though, would require action by the Supreme Court. Until then, she’s going to put her money where her laptop is.

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Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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