Thoughts, reflections, news, and musings from a veteran Silicon Valley journalist and commentator.

August 18, 2004

Big Media, Journalists and Politics

What do Winston Churchill, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, Upton Sinclair, Alan Cranston, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Al Gore have in common?

All of them were journalists before, and in some cases also after, they became political figures.

They are among the hundreds, perhaps thousands of other important leaders who made their living by reporting or commenting on public affairs -- a group that includes everyone from Georges Clemenceau, a major force during France's Third Republic to the former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 it was an ABC news reporter, John Scali, who helped avert nuclear catastrophe by serving as a secret go-between for the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union. For centuries, in democratic countries journalists have often been key participants in matters of state and community.

The people running today's biggest media empires are trying to put an end to all that, even if it means breaking the law.

You've probably heard their disingenuous, self-serving argument. It's one that most non-journalists, and many journalists as well, have accepted without too much thought. It goes something like this: the public won't trust media reports if the people who write them participate in politics in any way, including during their non-working hours. Journalists must be impartial observers and not be involved in the communities they cover. This, the standard reasoning goes, is the only way a media outlet can maintain a reputation for objectivity, or at least its fig-leaf step-cousin, "the perception of objectivity," for which most editors settle.

On the surface this seems like a sound argument. So plausible, in fact, that it has enabled one of the biggest thefts of the last century, the robbery of virtually an entire profession's most basic and fundamental constitutional rights.

If journalists want to keep a roof over their head (or, as President Bush might say, "put food on their families") they can't make contributions to political campaigns. They can't run for office, even for their local school board. In many cases, they can't even contribute to groups such as Planned Parenthood without risking their jobs and income. The cherished American freedoms we were taught in school, the freedom of speech and the right to associate with whomever one chooses, no longer apply to journalists. Unless, of course, they happen to own their own media outlets.

One predictable consequence of forbidding journalists' political expression is that it makes it less likely they will ever realize their full potentials as citizens or turn to careers in public service. This is not just unfair to journalists; it also damages our society. Our culture is cheated and its options are narrowed when any group is excluded from political participation. As the historical record attests, that is particularly true of journalists, who are often more knowledgeable, well-informed, thoughtful and socially-conscious than the lawyers and corporate shills who dominate political life in America today.

This is something that has bothered -- no, make that deeply, deeply offended me -- during all my years working for different media outlets, large and small. Most of my bosses have been perfectly reasonable people. But few of them ever thought twice when it came to forcing me to give up my constitutionally protected First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and association.

Think about this. We are talking about a profession whose practitioners are trained and paid to think, investigate, compare and contrast, talk, interview, write, analyze and report. When you look at the people currently running our government, do you see a surplus of those skills?

Journalists have lost their freedoms in the same way that poor frog adjusted to gradually heating water until it finally boiled to death. Over the last few decades corporate forces have slowly but steadily taken away basic constitutional rights from nearly every working journalist in the United States.

What could account for this bizarre, Orwellian state of affairs?

It's a combination of gross hypocrisy, financial self-dealing, power mongering and plain old cheap-ass laziness on the part of those holding the reins on our most influential media enterprises. The leaders of those operations have two choices. They can either ensure fairness and remove doubts by producing quality that speaks for itself, or they can try to create an illusion of fairness by telling employees what they can and can't do on their own time. It looks to me like the bigshots have taken the easy way out.

This issue gained fresh currency last month when one of our local dailies, the San Francisco Chronicle, demoted its veteran (35-year) employee, William Pates, the editor of the paper's Letters to the Editor page, after he was fingered for making a $400 contribution to the John Kerry for President campaign. Pates was not demoted for any decisions he made while he was on the job. On the contrary, he had always done a fine job. The Chron's Letters page has long been one of the most well-read in the state and a personal favorite, richly diverse in views and voices.

The Chronicle's decision to remove Pates from his post called his ethics into question, implicitly if not explicitly. That's what happens when journalists lose their jobs or are demoted amid public charges they have done something wrong. Such blows often prove fatal to a career. Very few media outlets dole out second chances. Fortunately, in this case, Pates managed to hold onto a paycheck, but only by accepting a lower-ranking position as a sports section copy editor on the night shift.

Ace technology whiz Henry Norr, another long-time Chron staffer, was not as fortunate. Last year, the paper fired Norr after he participated in a public demonstration against the Iraq War on his own time.

Norr's beat didn't have anything remotely to do with reporting on the war. His job, which he also performed exceptionally well, was to write about high-tech gadgets, not foreign policy or politics. But the Chron's management came down hard on him anyway. Like the paper's most recent suspension/demotion, Norr's sacking was portrayed as a necessary step, one the paper had to take to protect its reputation as a supposedly unbiased source of news and information.

Of course, it's terribly hard to see how Norr's opposition to the war in Iraq could have led to favoritism or bias in his work. But I guess we can all breathe easier now that we know he is no longer in a position where he might trick readers into buying electronic products with red LED screens, which personally I always knew was a sinister Commie plot.

The rationale for laying waste to First Amendment protections and damaging the careers of seasoned journalists was nicely summarized recently by Dick Rogers, the Chron's self-anointed Reader's Representative beat columnist. I strongly disagree with Rogers. But before I get to that, and in the interest of fairness, first take a look his column's nut graph, in which he explains his paper's latest suspension. Rogers says that Chron management should have even more freedom to politically silence employees:

"What I wanted to write here was a resounding, bulletproof, no-two-ways-about-it argument for a conflict of interest policy that goes like this:

"Here at The Chronicle, we don't take favors and we don't give to politicians. Period. End of subject." That's the best way (emphasis mine) to tell readers that the paper operates without fear or favor; that it covers the news without trying to shape the news; that it makes its editorial and coverage decisions independently; that it holds no IOUs and grants no IOUs."

This is where I disagree with Rogers and those whose share his opinion. Personally, I think the best way to serve the public is with thorough, fair, balanced, unbiased and inclusive reporting and analysis. And also by disclosing the political involvements of media employees and, for that matter, corporate media executives and the lobbyists they employ.

Sarah Norr, Henry's daughter, makes this point more eloquently than I can:

"...the Chronicle's stated commitment to neutrality conflicts rather glaringly with the behavior of its top executives. While Pates' $400 donation was labeled an ethical violation, George Hearst, chairman of the board of the Chronicle's parent company, has donated $30,000 to Republican candidates and committees over the past three election years. (Information on Hearst's donations is available at the campaign finance web site http://www.opensecrets.org/).

"This is one of the great hypocrisies of American journalism," said [director of Stanford's Graduate Program in Journalism Ted] Glasser. "These policies apply to rank-and-file reporters, not to managers. If you want to talk about conflicts of interest, let's talk about it where it really matters."

When it comes to assessing the merit of any particular journalistic effort the work should speak for itself. Journalists are human beings. They react to current events just like anyone else. Of course they have opinions, biases and political leanings. The question is whether they let those feelings leak into the news they cover. Avoiding that requires clarity about the requirements of the profession, self-knowledge, skill, experience, and good editors, not simplistic and repressive rules about what people do on their own time.

Whether a writer has given money to one cause or another means little to me as a reader. It says absolutely nothing about the quality of their work. What matters to me is the work itself. Is it fair? Does it include all sides? Is it accurate? Does it contain all the facts a reader needs to form their own conclusion? Those are more reliable measures of good journalism. On the other hand, it's certainly much easier, and far less expensive, to simply gag employees while they are off the clock and then claim clean hands and high standards.

At the same time, the public knows that media operations routinely twist and distort the news in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, the same bosses who are so concerned with fairness that they are willing to strip their employee's constitutional rights often order their political reporting staffs not to spend time or money covering so-called "minor candidates." This common, familiar and totally unfair practice inserts a bias into the electoral process that almost certainly outweighs any personal political contributions of time or money individual journalists might make.

The owners of major media conglomerates play this ethical shell game while behind the scenes-- and typically without any coverage in their own publications -- they are busy using their considerable clout to secure legislation that further extends their power and fattens their corporate bottom lines. The most common big media strategies for self-enrichment include extending their free, highly lucrative and monopolistic control of the nation's broadcast airwaves and killing or weakening the few remaining laws that restrict the number of media outlets one company can own in a community, among other choice plums.

When criticized on such points news executives retreat behind their familiar claims of objectivity backed up by what is, for all practical purposes, a complete and total irrelevancy. After all, they point out, we can people like Henry Norr and William Pates, don't we?

Trying to absolve one's sins by sacrificing someone else is an ancient dodge, one that organized religion jettisoned centuries ago, but in journalism, it persists.

In California it is actually a violation of state law to restrict the constitutional rights of media company employees. Here is another remarkably telling quote from Dick Rogers' column, which touches on this point. In it, he laments that his paper does not have an even clearer written policy that would do a better job of depriving journalists of their rights:

"The [Chronicle] policy was written with one eye on California Labor Code Sections 1101 and 1102, decades-old statutory provisions intended to protect union organizing activity. The language is far more sweeping, though, saying plainly that employers can't impose rules restricting any employee's political activities or affiliations.

That's a bitter pill for any paper that, constantly attacked from the left and the right, seeks to say to the world that it calls the news as it sees it, with no allegiances and no alliances.

But it's not the final word. Seven years ago the Washington State Supreme Court upheld a Tacoma newspaper's First Amendment right to curtail political activism on the part of one of its reporters. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. So at this point, it's not a precedent in California, though it can be used for its persuasive value in court, should the issue come to legal blows here."

This is where this gets really scary. Rogers points to this court ruling with evident hope. Basically, as he notes, the Oregon judges have said that an employee can be fired if they exercise their personal constitutional rights without the permission of their employer. In short, Oregon's misguided court has placed the commercial needs of a business above the constitutionally protected rights of its employees.

Now, what do you call a social and legal system where employers determine what rights employees have? You can find the answer in the dictionary under "F": it's called "fascism."

Just imagine if the basis for this ruling were extended to other businesses. Can a defense contractor fire an employee for publicly voicing objections to U.S. foreign policy? After all, those objections, if heard by others, might cut into that company's weapons-related income stream. Or how about an employee of a dairy who writes a letter to the editor protesting the use of bovine growth hormone? Fire the sucker. What does he think, that he lives in a free country? That's the slippery slope big media is taking us down. Once you deprive one group of their rights it gets easier to take those rights away from others.

The good news is the solution to this hypocrisy is already taking shape. The public is voting with its feet or, more precisely, their eyeballs. That's one reason there are so many more media outlets now. For more than a generation increasing numbers of people have not only been rejecting mainstream media, they've been searching out and creating more authentic alternatives, everything from Craig's List to MoveOn.org.

The widespread dissatisfaction with corporate-driven media is also one of the main reasons the Internet took off so fast. Many people see the Internet as a way to democratize the flow of information. And slowly but surely, day by day, that is happening, as the media conglomerates and their self-appointed information gatekeepers see their power and influence, as well as their advertising revenues, slip away.

So my message to the Big Media honchos is this: Just keep doing business as usual. Oh and don't pay any attention to this whole blogging phenomenon. It won't make a dent in how people get their news and information.

For more information on this topic:
Chronicle Columnist Dick Rogers full column.
Sarah Norr's column about related issues.

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