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How Involved is too Involved?
Unfinished ruminations on the petition-signing flap.

Blog posts are supposed to be quick hits, off-the-top-of-the-head riffs on the subject at hand. Or else an idiosyncratic exploration of some bit of obscurity.

Clearly, I’m doing it wrong.

Today’s thoughts have been percolating for a solid month and a half. I’ve put off writing this piece (sorry, Mil Mag Associate Editor Matt Hrodey!) for many reasons—business travel, personal obligations, the march of other deadlines—but chiefly because, despite weeks and weeks of questions back and forth with some of the state’s veteran journalists, along with endless reading on the topic and hours of cogitation ... I’m still not entirely sure what I think.

The topic: Who gives up their rights to political activity because of what they do for a living?

This all started when two different judges issued injunctions against the state’s new Voter ID back in March. News quickly broke that one of them had signed a petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker.

For Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl, it was unambiguously clear that judge David Flanagan shouldn’t have signed, regardless of his personal beliefs – or at least should have disclosed having done so before ruling on the Voter ID law, because signing cast doubt on his impartiality on the bench.

Gannett’s 10 daily papers in Wisconsin turned that finding into a larger joint project and uncovered 29 judges around the state who signed recall petitions. The Journal Sentinel engaged in a similar exercise.

But days later, the tables were turned with the revelation that 25 Gannett Wisconsin employees had themselves signed. A memo to the employees at Gannett's Appleton Post-Crescent followed, along with a column by that paper's publisher, who told readers:

It was wrong, and those who signed were in breach of Gannett's Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms.

It didn’t stop there. The State Journal in Madison disclosed some of its own employees had signed. Even though only one was considered to be “involved in news coverage,” State Journal Editor John Smalley explained that none of them should have:  

If journalists are not neutral, how can our audience expect us to present fair and unbiased stories about political matters? As a result, journalists cannot seek political office, put campaign signs in their yards or make political contributions.

It is, Smalley wrote, simply a standard sort of work-related restriction akin to rules in many other jobs: 

If you want to sell high-end clothing, you can’t wear cut-off jeans to work. If you want to deliver Coca-Cola, you can’t drink Pepsi in your truck. And if you want to be a journalist, you keep your politics to yourself.

At the State Journal the rule is across the board, including even people whose jobs don’t require them to make editorial decisions about what to cover or how to cover it. That prompted this sarcastic Tweet from NYU’s Jay Rosen:

If imaging technicians who do graphics processing sign a petition how can we trust anything in your freakin' newspaper?

I asked Smalley about that. “We don’t slice and dice the policy; rather than having it apply to some jobs and not other jobs, we simply apply it across the newsroom,” he tells me, while noting that “the severity of the offense and our resulting difficulties might vary somewhat from job to job.”

One news organization that apparently avoided the controversy is the Journal Sentinel. JS Managing Editor George Stanley tells me that, before the petitions started being circulated, he sent newsroom employees an email reminding them of the paper’s ethics policy. That policy specifically instructs newsroom employees to refrain from joining groups or causes “that could compromise or appear to compromise our ability to report and edit fairly” and “to refrain from signing petitions or otherwise identifying ourselves with public issues, groups or causes.”

 “I just didn't want anyone to find themselves approached on a sidewalk or in a grocery store and then sign something without thinking,” Stanley says. And no JS news staffers have turned up on recall petitions.

Not so with the paper’s corporate cousins at WTMJ TV and radio. There, three employees involved in news gathering who signed petitions “were reminded of their obligation not to become politically active in public settings,” Steve Wexler, Journal Broadcast Group executive vice president, tells me. No one was “punished,” however, he says.

Not surprisingly, given WTMJ radio’s brand as a right-wing talk station, singling out recall signers on the staff drew scorn from bloggers on the left, who noted that talk host Charlie Sykes is a fixture in promoting GOP candidates and policies and a speaker at clearly partisan rallies. Replies Wexler: “He is not a news employee.  His job is to express his views on the issues of the day, which he's been doing on WTMJ since 1993.”

That distinction isn’t shared by Journal Sentinel, says David Haynes, editorial page editor.

“Just like their colleagues on the news side of the Journal Sentinel, members of the Editorial Board may not be involved in political activities of any kind,” Haynes tells me. “That includes signing a recall petition, placing a sign in their yard or otherwise advocating in the political arena. Our role as opinion writers does not relieve us of this requirement: We must be fair and open-minded as we approach the issues of the day. Any participation in politics by Editorial Board members would taint our efforts to approach the issues in an even-handed fashion. Participating in political activity sends our readers the message that we've already made up our minds.”

Interestingly, that ethic may actually be more widespread than you’d think. Earlier this year, when I was profiling Tommy Thompson’s Senate race for Isthmus in Madison, I briefly corresponded with a conservative blogger and writer for some insight. In passing, I asked whether he was in any way involved with the campaign of Thompson or any of his GOP rivals. James Wigderson said categorically that he now stays out of direct political involvement: “Hard to write about a campaign objectively if you're stuck in the middle of it.”

(Which may help explain why Wigderson took such umbrage at recent blog commentary insinuating he’s still involved in active campaign work.)

For others, though, it's more ambiguous. Is signing a petition more of a private act, akin to voting? Or, even if it isn't, should whatever prohibition that might understandably apply to news reporters and editors be extended to personnel in other areas of the company – such as advertising sales people or circulation clerks? It's worth noting that according to the Appleton memo, none of the signing employees "are news reporters or assigning news editors."

And if the "neutrality" rule is extended that broadly, how much further should it reach? Is there a double-standard when a newspaper publisher imposes those sorts of limits, but then turns around and joins the local chamber of commerce – an organization that, after all, probably engages in at least some political work? (For that matter – should any union representing journalists refrain from political endorsements on the same principle?)

And then what about stories like this one from ProPublica, reporting that big media companies were lobbying against the FCC’s rule to put political ad buy data – which is already public under the law – online so that voters and citizens would have easier access to it?

Can it really be that acts like this on the part of corporate media owners are just fine, and yet for a lowly reporter to sign a recall petition is wrong?

This story isn’t over. I’ll have more thoughts in a future column. In the meantime, feel free to share your own in the comments.

* * *

Comment below, or write Pressroom at pressroom@milwaukeemagazine.com.

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6 Comments
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brthompson Posted: 5/1/2012 10:20:38 PM
 2   1    

In past presidential elections, Slate published an article listing who their staff and contributors planned to vote for. I don't think that had any negative effect on their credibility. The bigger question for me is whether the person or publication is willing to give both sides or only the evidence that supports their position. I can name a number of publication, writers, and radio talkers I would put in the latter category, so I don't waste my time with them. I would agree that publishing the recall petitions was bad policy. Anything that discourages political involvement should itself be discouraged.
Jeff Norman Posted: 5/1/2012 9:40:13 PM
 3   1    

The recall ballots should not have been made public, any more than voting ballots are made public. Besides, one could argue that in the current political environment, not signing a recall petition is itself a political statement. Even if it's not: singling out recall signers has the effect of denigrating Democrats, when Republicans (who need do nothing to support Walker) are not singled out. To prevent this imbalance, the recalls should be public.
George Mitchell Posted: 5/1/2012 6:09:28 PM
 3   2    

John McAdams is correct. If the media really were transparent then reporters would just tell us who they are going to vote for. So, for example, we could be reminded that Meg Kissinger will be voting to recall Scott Walker when she writes an opinion piece masking as analysis on the "war on women."
John McAdams Posted: 5/1/2012 4:21:45 PM
 2   1    

These policies (against political involvement by staffers) do absolutely nothing to ensure fairness. Their purpose, quite simply, is to conceal from the public the pervasive political bias of their staffs.
gwpinetree Posted: 5/1/2012 4:14:50 PM
 2   2    

The wisdom of the policies aside, this never should have happened, and wouldn't have, if the petitions had not been put online. To me, the decision to put the petitions online smacks of intimidation. What's next, reporters and judges being disqualified form voting?
Erik Posted: 5/1/2012 12:39:41 PM
 3   0    

Community blogger Steve Schuster explored some of these questions with reporters in Washington and Baltimore last month: http://www.milwaukeemag.com/article/4122012-WalkersDividedWisconsin
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