The two-edged pen

Last week, Gannett Newspapers committed a flagrant act of journalism by publishing the names of 29 circuit court justices who had signed the gubernatorial recall petitions.

Then proving that public disclosure is a two-edged sword, or perhaps a mirror, the Green Bay Press–Gazette, The Post~Crescent in Appleton, the Oshkosh Northwestern, the Wausau Daily Herald, the Sheboygan Press and the Door County Advocate in Sturgeon Bay ran similarly worded editorials last weekend announcing that 25 Gannett employees — nine from the Post~Crescent, seven from the Press–Gazette, five from the Northwestern, two from the Daily Herald, one from the Press, and one from the Advocate — had also signed the petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker.

(Somewhat strangely, The Reporter in Fond du Lac, Manitowoc  Herald Times Reporter, Marshfield News Herald, Stevens Point Journal and Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune ran the same editorials even though they reported none of their employees as having signed the petitions. All of the Gannetts reported that none of their staff who worked on the circuit judge story signed the petitions.)

The Gannett 25 — about one-ninth of Gannett’s 223 Wisconsin news employees — are not the first journalists to have discovered, perhaps to their surprise, that petitions are public documents according to Wisconsin law. The first reported example was the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, whose managing editor, Ryan Whisner, and regional editor signed petitions for the recall of Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R–Juneau). Whisner, whose job duties appear to include Fitzgerald’s work, previously cheered on recall candidate Lori Compas on her Facebook page.

All of the aforementioned seems to violate, at least in spirit, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, specifically the “Act Independently” section …

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.
Journalists should:

— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

… as well as part of the “Be Accountable” section:

Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
Journalists should …

— Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media. …
— Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
— Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

Post~Crescent publisher Genia Lovett also spelled out Gannett’s Code of Ethics as it applies to political involvements:

All Gannett journalists are trained on and expected to follow the company’s principles of ethical conduct. The 32 principles include these six that are directly relevant to the recall petition issue:

» We will remain free of outside interests, investments or business relationships that may compromise the credibility of our news report.

» We will maintain an impartial, arm’s length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news.

» We will avoid potential conflicts of interest and eliminate inappropriate influence on content.

» We will take responsibility for our decisions and consider the possible consequences of our actions.

» We will be conscientious in observing these principles.

» We will always try to do the right thing.

A Gannett journalist cannot uphold these principles and at the same time post a candidate’s sign in the yard, or sign a candidate’s nomination papers, or join a campaign rally, or sign a petition advocating a recall election.

I’ve maintained for years that there should be a Public Embarrassment of Your Employer rule that allows employers to fire employees who publicly embarrass them. The Daily Jefferson County Union should have fired Whisner under that rule. No reader of that newspaper should expect that any story with Whisner’s byline contains anything more than his biases against Fitzgerald specifically and Republicans generally.

Those who applaud Gannett for living up to its own code of ethics should pause for their inner cynic. Media Trackers outed the Daily Jefferson County Union’s petition signings. One can reasonably ask whether Gannett found out someone was about to report Gannett employees’ petition signings and if that prompted Gannett’s public mea culpa.

This appears to be a media example of what has been known in Washington since the Clinton administration as the Friday afternoon document dump — release the damaging information you’re required to release when few people are paying attention. In all cases except the Reporter (which doesn’t have a Saturday paper), Gannett’s shame-on-us editorials were published in their Saturday editions, which are the least-read editions of a seven-day-a-week newspaper.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Recall ________ movement(s) is who’s standing up on the side of public disclosure and who is not. According to some comments on some of the Gannett newspaper websites, the bad guys in this are Gannett management for supposedly abrogating their employees’ First Amendment rights:

Signing a petition should not be considered any different than voting. How dare the Post Crescent control the private activities of its employees. It’s a shame the names were released in the first place, and it’s actions like this that make it even more appalling. Just because they signed the petition doesn’t mean they can’t remain objective while doing their job.

(This ignores the fact that petitions on behalf of candidates’ attempts to get on ballots or referendum petitions are public records and have always been public records at least as long as the ’70s Open Records Law has been law. Voting is the only political activity guaranteed to be private.)

This is participating in our American Election process. It has nothing to do with integrity or their jobs. It is their right as American Citizens. Gannets should be ashamed of intimidating their employees. I hope if there is any disciplinary action, these employees sue Gannett and it goes all the way to th Supreme Court. The actions of Gov Walker impact these employees and their families.

(The utilitarian theory: They have right to exercise their constitutional rights because the commenter hates Scott Walker.)

Genia-I suppose that no one should have signed these petitions? That way the end result would have been to your liking. To limit professional journalists, judges, and others from participating in any democratic process is unconstitutional. I realize that Appleton is the home to the distinguished Joseph McCarthy, but that doesn’t mean we have to follow his witchhunt tactics.

(Godwin’s Law states that anyone in an online debate who accuses someone of being a Nazi automatically loses the debate. There should be a Wisconsin equivalent for accusations of McCarthyism.)

We are a democratic republic. The citizens of this democrat republic have every right to protect it from a Governor who no longer serves the interests of this state. People that sign the petition are defenders of Wisconsin. If the governor can be removed, they should be hailed as heroes.

(I eagerly await this commenter’s defense of a future recall effort against a Democratic elected official.)

As a Conservative and while I condemn any judge who signs the recall and refuses to recuse themselves from any case involving Governor Walker or his policies, journalists are a completely different matter. First, anyone who truly believes journalists act without bias is living in the FAR distant past. Second, journalists are not bound by any oath of office, code of ethicd (LOL) or any other committment. Finally, while I too dislike much of the bias shown BOTH ways in the media, we all recognize it for what it is and we move on.

(This is the most cynical comment I have read. Well done.)

Wis U.P.  North nicely summarizes the non-media-expert view:

One, we commend Gannett for first admitting that some do have a bias in their company and second, holding their employees responsible for their actions.  We are not sure if anything will ever happen to the 25 but it looks good in print. You can read above that the 25 are kicking and shouting that they did no wrong. Typical liberals.

We can now wonder if the media in T V and local print signed the Walker recall.  Having I Verify The Recall is such a good thing to have.

If the people in the media would just be honest, we could deal with their bias. It is when they say they are not bias and then get caught red handed.

There is bias in the media and that will never change. People do have a right to not buy newspapers and not watch certain T V stations.

First: Anyone who claims they signed petitions only so people got a chance to vote is being disingenuous at best. Every legal voter had a chance to vote for Walker or one of his opponents in November 2010. Every legal voter will have a chance to vote for or against Walker in November 2014 if Walker runs for reelection. If you signed the Walker recall petition, you oppose Walker and you want him out of office. Period. Don’t lie and claim otherwise.

With most of what the media does, bias isn’t much of an issue. (I write that as someone who’s been baselessly accused of bias more than once, including bias in favor of a town’s St. Charles Catholic Church instead of others when a story mentioned a cemetery on “St. Charles Road.”) Truth be told, though, bias is easier for the unprofessional journalist to insert into a story than the non-journalist might think. Someone who doesn’t return calls to a reporter gets described by the phrase “was unavailable for comment,” which can give the appearance of denigrating the person who refused to talk to the reporter, even though the statement is 100 percent accurate. A story about a car crash could say that car A hit car B, or it could say that cars A and B collided; each implies a different version of what happened. Read the Green Bay Press–Gazette’s and Chicago Tribune’s versions of the next Packers–Bears game, and even though the facts will be 100 percent in agreement, the interpretation of them will not be.

Here’s an even better example: Let’s say your school district decides to add teachers to reduce class sizes in a few grades. That means the school district is spending more, which means your school property taxes will increase — let’s say 3 percent in our example. So either of these headlines would be valid headline choices:

  • School class sizes to drop in new budget
  • New school budget hikes taxes 3%

Either is correct, but each says something different from the other.

Journalists have biases, political and otherwise, because human beings have biases. Being unbiased is probably not possible, but being fair, objective and complete in your reporting is possible. It is nevertheless a reasonable question to ask a journalist already on record of opposing conservatives such as Walker whether they can be fair to or objective about conservatives not named Walker. (Remember that the phrase “the personal is political” wasn’t invented by conservatives.)

People who cloak their actions in the Constitution sometimes forget the difference between their right to do something and whether what they did was a good idea. (And many also forget that freedom of expression doesn’t include freedom from the consequences of your actions.) Yes, the Gannett employees had the right to sign petitions. The First Amendment even says they have the right to engage in political activity, contrary to what the Gannett Code o’ Ethics says.

On the other hand, the First Amendment applies to government, not necessarily to one’s employer. And there is no question that the Gannett employees’ signing the petitions that are public records gives the appearance of impropriety. Go back two paragraphs, and you can conclude that Gannett employees’ signing petitions gives the appearance that Gannett newspapers want Walker to be recalled and lose. As with any other worker or employer, any Gannett employee who doesn’t like having to follow Gannett’s Code of Ethics is free to pursue employment elsewhere.

If the media is serious about serving the public, then the appearance of “conflicts of interest, real or perceived” absolutely matters. That’s why codes of journalism ethics say journalists should “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Which is what this comment on the Gannett Blog gets at:

Speaking as a former Gannett employee in Wisconsin who signed the recall petition, the journalists who signed the ethics code AND the petition should be terminated. They are educated, professional adults who knew the rules — and broke them! This story tells me one thing: do not trust Gannett newspapers in Wisconsin. There are two other newspapers in Wisconsin where you may find fair, impartial news. End of discussion.

The most ironic aspect of all this comes from the Gannett Blog, an email sent to Post~Crescent employees by managing editor Jamie Mara that included this sentence: “Do not respond to any media requests or other communication you might receive from outside our office in relation to this matter.”

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10 thoughts on “The two-edged pen

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