Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ethics: Musings on Journalists and Political Affiliation

Should journalists be allowed to donate to political causes?

The late Timesman Abe Rosenthal once said, "I don't care if you sleep with elephants as long as you don't cover the circus."

But when MSNBC outed some for having donated a little while back, there were muffled conversations in newsrooms. "Did you hear about Bob?" "Yeah I dunno." "Think he's in trouble?" They've certainly occurred in mine.

Of course, these records have always been publicly available, and this topic tends to come around at opportune times during the political process. But you don't often see journalists outing journalists.

But you know what? I kind of like the checks and balances nature of the investigation. I don't condone needless peer-chasing, but it's a stark reminder that hey -- journalists are just as much in the public eye as everyone they report on.

The crux of the argument: Why should we give up our rights as U.S. citizens just to report, especially when journalists end up being jailed for holding true to their values? Neal Justin over at the Star Tribune gave what I thought to be an even-handed look at the topic: If politics is your bag, you might want to avoid giving to a campaign or worse, working for them. It's too active a role in the topic you cover. Don't be the news, just write about it.

However, there's always the problem of registration, which I find to be much more controversial. Should a journalist register as a Democrat or Republican, or register as an independent? Many colleagues I know would say not to register with a party; to avoid being associated with them. I respect that view -- however, my view is a bit more complicated.

In my opinion, a journalist should be allowed to register for whomever. Registration is not a vote. But I'm not here to argue on principle. What I mean to say is that a registration could be a strategic move, since it allows a vote in the primary -- for example, I could register for the opposing party so I could vote in their primary and try to game the system, especially if that party's in power in my state. On the surface, that registration certainly doesn't indicate my political preference, does it?

Similarly, by registering independent, I'm sacrificing my right to vote in a primary. And I find that to be a bit too much. So I think it's OK to register for a party (especially since it's required by law to register) and journalists should defend their registration on the basis outlined above. It's like finding someone guilty in a lawsuit based solely on speculation. I know public opinion isn't as institutionally even-handed as our court system is designed to be, but it's worth a defense.

In Justin's article, Bill Wareham, Minnesota Public Radio news director, says: "I don't think working journalists should be actively engaged in politics outside the voting booth." And I agree.

What do you think?

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