The consequences of your signature

Whoever came up with the idea to put the Scott Walker recall petitions at might be in line for some kind of journalism award.

If the website accomplished nothing else, it helped demonstrate the lack of knowledge within the state’s news media — or at least those caught signing the petition to recall Walker or one of the Republican state senators  — about the state Open Records Law. (Which during my entire professional  lifetime and at least a decade before that has been the sword journalists use to strike against those in state and local government who don’t want the public to know what they’re doing. The irony level is off the charts.)

It also may have demonstrated that either many people who work for media organizations haven’t read their employer’s code of ethics, or those media organizations haven’t explained their codes of ethics to their employees very well. (Journalism codes of ethics were devised out of the belief that journalism is a public endeavor, and out of the reality that journalism is the only line of work specifically protected by the First Amendment.)

There is also a third option, and I’m surprised no one has mentioned this before. Perhaps the media types who signed the petitions signed thinking they were helping their employer. A gubernatorial recall means months and months of stories, and, even better, millions of dollars of advertising, hopefully with their employer! (Any media company with Wisconsin operations that is not making buckets of money this year needs to replace its entire sales staff.)

I’m not sure into which category Rob Starbuck of WISC-TV in Madison fits, but he is the latest media person whose signature has been discovered by Media Trackers:

After Media Trackers first reported the signings, Colin Benedict, news director for WISC-TV, told Media Trackers that when he learned of the events he immediately “took action” and made sure “additional steps” were implemented in the newsroom process to prevent conflicts of interest in political reporting. “I directed that [Starbuck] not participate in any interviews related to the recall elections,” he said. Benedict also clarified that the signing was in violation of the station’s policy for newsroom employees.

Finding broadcasters on the recall petitions is more of a challenge because many of them don’t use their real names on the air. That’s usually not the case with print, which was how Boots and Sabers (H/T: Wis U.P.  North) is able to pass on this from the Wisconsin State Journal:

Wisconsin State Journal editors learned this week that six staff members signed petitions calling for the recall of Gov. Scott Walker.

Five of the six signed a petition on Nov. 15, 2011, the first day the documents were circulated, and just before an internal memo from State Journal editor John Smalley reminded staff members of the newspaper’s policy against such activity, based on a long-standing code of ethics.

“We were surprised and disappointed,” Smalley said of finding the staff members’ names by searching a database of signatures at “We apologize to our readers for the lapse in judgment by several staff members.” …

Smalley said the newspaper considers signing a petition of any kind a violation of the company’s ethics policy. A portion of the code reads: “Participation in public affairs or events that may leave the impression that news judgment is being influenced by activism is prohibited.”

I don’t know what WISC’s or its parent company’s employee manual states, but for a media person to sign a petition violates the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics:

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.

When a journalist puts his or her name on a public document that advocates a partisan or otherwise political activity, the journalist has violated both of those points. That is whether the petition is for or against a Democrat, Republican or nonpartisan candidate, or a referendum. WISC is based in Madison, but non-Madisonians and non-Dane County residents watch WISC too. WISC’s viewers have good reason to wonder whether WISC has been fairly covering the Recall _____ movement.

Those claiming that journalists’ political activities are protected by the First Amendment are the same people who would be screaming bloody murder had Starbuck signed a petition advocating the recall of Walker’s predecessor, Democrat James Doyle. (Particularly in the People’s Republic of Madison.) And anyone who claims they signed petitions only so people got a chance to vote is telling a tall tale. Anyone who signed the Walker recall petition opposes Walker and wants him out of office.

That certainly applies to elected officials who signed the Walker petitions, particularly those who do not have a D after their name. The list of signers include Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. (And apparently nearly every other Madison elected official.) Let’s say you’re a Madison resident who is known to be a conservative, and you have a problem with the city. Think you’re going to get a fair shake from Comrade Soglin and his apparatchiks? (The answer to which could be: You mean now, or since 1973?)

Appearance matters. The judges who signed the petition were wrong because they now appear to be biased. Starbuck and the Gannett 25 were wrong to sign because they now appear to be biased. All of them have damaged their own credibility by signing. In the court of public opinion, they’re now all guilty until they prove otherwise. The First Amendment does not protect you from the consequences of your actions, including exercising your First Amendment rights.

7 thoughts on “The consequences of your signature

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s