Two weeks ago, I weighed in on the debate
over whether journalists should or shouldn’t sign recall petitions like the ones filed this year against Gov. Scott Walker.
Today, further thoughts on that topic.
In justifying rules that keep their
employees out of personal participation or engagement with “controversial
subjects,” news organizations typically frame the matter as one of preserving
their reputation with the audience – as when Journal Sentinel editorial page editor David Haynes told me, “Participating
in political activity sends our readers the message that we’ve already made up
At some news organizations the
policy is so strict that, I’ve learned, at least one withdrew its offer of a
summer internship because the chosen journalism student admitted to signing a
News organizations fear their
credibility with readers and viewers will be tainted by such overt expressions
of partisanship as signing a petition or posting a yard sign.
But does that really work? And is it
Some media critics now openly and
forcefully question the conventional professional wisdom embedded in the old
newsroom maxim, “If you’re going to cover the circus, you can’t sleep with the
When Gannett Wisconsin newspapers
confessed that 25 of its employees had signed Walker recall petitions, and
publishers declared that to be a violation of the chain’s ethical code, Reuters
media columnist Jack Shafer raised a fist in print.
“Free the Gannett 25!” he wrote, and
then took part in an hour-long chat at the Poynter Institute on the issue of how far journalists could or
should go in taking a stand.
In his column Shafer presented the
issue as one of transparency:
the ethical crime in Wisconsin wasn’t having political views, which the Gannett
code allows. It wasn’t expressing those views in secret. It was expressing a
weakened form of them in a way that could go public. As long as you conceal
your views from the ethics cops, you’re safe.
a just and utopian world, news organizations would permit modest political activism
by journalists – campaign contributions, placards on their lawns, bumper
stickers on their cars, attendance at rallies, even the signing of recall
petitions, etc. – as long as the journalists were willing to declare it. This
proposal isn’t as radical as it sounds. At the core of the current journalistic
codes is the notion that judging journalism requires us to judge the conduct of
the journalists producing it. Instead of suppressing the political lives of
journalists, why not allow that which is now covert to become overt and give
readers more information to assess coverage?
It’s an appealing stance. And in this
era of greater transparency, aided by always-on-connectivity and the ocean of
electronic information in which we swim, with respect to many things political,
it may be not only rational, but almost inevitable.
But there’s another angle here. Whether
or not they’re candid about it, there’s another party to whom news
organizations want to avoid sending the message of “bias”: news sources and newsmakers
That’s where Bill Lueders of the
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Watch placed his focus when he told a Madison radio interviewer he didn’t think signing a petition was
appropriate for him in his particular role supervising the coverage of
political campaign spending.
“I want to let Scott Walker know
that he can get a fair shake with me, that I will be fair with him, that I
respect him as governor, and I don’t presume to be the one to tell him that he
needs to go,” Lueders told Amy Barrilleaux.
And that too is an understandable
and rational stance.
In an email to me, Lueders also
noted something else: “These policies are driven by concern about how media
outlets may be attacked. If the public wasn't looking for reasons to impugn
reporters, this might not be an issue.”
Now consider another twist.
Think back to some of the deepest
cultural and social controversies in our nation’s history – like the Civil
Rights movement of the 1960s, or the labor unrest that marked the cusp of the
19th and 20th centuries.
The journalistic work we most admire
from those eras was certainly not the sort of bland, uncommitted, get-both-sides-of-the-story-and-don’t-choose-one-yourself
kind of reporting that rules enforcing strict nonpartisanship seem at risk of
Instead, it is the work of
committed, passionate people who were driven to expose fundamental injustices
and who did so out of a strong core of values about what was right and what was
wrong – people like Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair in that earlier era, or
Gene Patterson, Tom Wicker or Earl Caldwell in the later one. As Jack Nelson of the Los
Angeles Times wrote a decade ago:
was a story where the issue seemed so cut and dry and the injustices so stark
that reporters struggled to remain objective, though many found it difficult
not to become emotionally involved. Seeing hard-eyed state troopers (always
described as hard-eyed—and they were) in Selma slamming their clubs against the
skulls of blacks who were demonstrating for the right to vote left reporters
feeling there weren’t two sides to this story.
Now, one can argue that there’s
still a line to be drawn between an overarching passion and set of values, on
the one hand, and actively signing up for a particular cause.
Nelson and his colleagues in the
South in the 1960s probably didn’t join the NAACP and certainly didn’t march in
the protests that they covered – that wasn’t their job. And arguably, they may
have still had more credibility because they stuck to that job, with all the
passion that they felt for the justice of the cause they were covering.
Yet, sometimes, it is impossible not
to be part of the story in a much more intimate way.
That’s what happened to Louis
Weisberg back in 2000 when he was writing for the Chicago Free Press. Weisberg, who now edits the gay biweekly Wisconsin Gazette, called up Fred Phelps
– infamous for the hate-filled protests he leads around the country directed at
“I told him when I called that I was
a gay man calling from a gay newspaper,” Weisberg says. “I told him that I
wanted to give him the chance to explain to my readers why he hated them so
Phelps readily agreed to an
interview. “He said that, on the contrary, he loved us. That's why he was
trying to save us, he said. He told me that the preachers who lied to me and
said it's OK to be gay were my real enemies, because they were coaxing me
straight to hell. Or words to that effect.
“We spoke for a very long time – maybe
as much as 45 minutes (or so it seems now). He sounded very compassionate at
times, but occasionally spurted out over-the-top statements – sort of as if he
had Tourette's syndrome.
“He was much nicer on the phone than
in person. On the phone, he was almost likable in the way he spoke so
passionately about his convictions. He left no doubt that he meant what he said
and believed that he was doing good in the world.”
Why was Phelps so willing to be
interviewed – even by someone completely upfront about being so at odds with
“I think he saw the interview as a
chance to speak directly to gay people,” Weisberg says. “There were several
times when he insisted, ‘You must put this in your story . . . ’ before he cited a verse of scripture.”
And given the questions he asked, he adds, it would have been impossible for
Weisberg to conduct the interview and not disclose he was gay.
“I think that he saw the interview
as an opportunity, although he was occasionally cynical and predicted that I
would twist his words to suit my purposes,” he continues. “I took that as a
challenge to write the story in a way that he couldn’t say I did that.”
But there’s no question Weisberg had
a deeper political and social purpose to his story. “I wanted to let readers
know how Phelps felt about them and about his activism in his own words. I also
wanted to find out what made him tick – why he was so obsessed with
homosexuality of all things.”
The story Weisberg wrote contrasted
Phelps with the Rev. Greg Dell, a Methodist pastor and pro-gay activist.
“Astonishingly, they had attended seminary together – they were cut from the
same clerical cloth,” Weisberg says. “Yet their interpretations of their
religion couldn't have been more at odds. The story was an attempt to explore
how that happened.”
Even within his own clear point of
view, Weisberg strived to step back, “letting each of them tell the story of
how he ended up with a particular set of beliefs,” he says. “For my audience,
just quoting Phelps accurately was inflammatory.”
At the same time, though, he brought
his point of view directly into the interview, and considers that an important
dimension to the encounter.
“As a gay man, I was able to say
with authenticity, ‘It hurts me as a gay man when you say these things,’ and
thus force him to respond to an actual person in explaining his views,”
Weisberg says. “I think that challenged him to think beyond his canned rhetoric
and it gave the story more depth.
“I didn't just ask him questions or
get information from him. We were two very disparate people having an
interaction. There was give and take that provided dimensionality to the story.
I was also able to tell Phelps how Dell thought about him – and vice versa –
and record their responses to each other. I was able to show each man from the
other's point of view.”
When Phelps came to Chicago and held
a protest some months later, Weisberg showed up and introduced himself.
“He seemed to remember me,” Weisberg
says. “In person, confronted by an overwhelming number of counter-demonstrators
(his clan numbered fewer than a dozen, while the pro-gay faction numbered as
many as 1,000), he was much harsher. In fact, he was furious and scary . . . .
“I remember him saying to me – out
of nowhere – ‘You're dogs eating your own vomit.’ I think about that sometimes
and wonder what he meant.”