News & Criticism

Journos and Political Contributions

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Should journalists be prohibited by their employers from donating time or money to political causes? Specific candidates? Etc.?

MSNBC.com identified 144 journalists who made political contributions from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign, according to the public records of the Federal Election Commission. Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left: 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes. Only 17 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties….

Traditionally, many news organizations have applied the rules to only political reporters and editors. The ethic was summed up by Abe Rosenthal, the former New York Times editor, who is reported to have said, "I don't care if you sleep with elephants as long as you don't cover the circus."…

[New Yorker editor David] Remnick…said that the magazine's writers don't do straight reporting. "Their opinions are out there," Remnick said. "There's nothing hidden." So why not disclose campaign donations to readers? "Should every newspaper reporter divulge who they vote for?"…

More here.

I am against mandatory disclosure laws for citizens when it comes to campaign-finance laws. As Brian Doherty has documented, that sensible-sounding requirement can be used to sledgehammer political dissent.

However, as a rule for a given news organization, I think writers giving disclosure when it's relevant is a good idea, even when we're talking about social networks rather than pure cash, etc. There are limits to all this, of course, but generally speaking more information is better than less when it comes to evaluating arguments, context, you name it. At the same time, simplistic "follow the money" gotchas–made famous in the movie version of All the President's Men; the phrase doesn't appear in the book version–are far from the be-all and end-all in public discourse.

reason asked its staff and others "Who's getting your vote?" back in 2004.

Update: Don't miss MSNBC's list of journalists who made political contributions and their explanations/exculpations for doing so. Highlights include former MTV presidential correspondent Gideon Yago ("I would never qualify what we do as journalism"), MSNBC travel correspondent Joel Widzer ("I'm actually a Republican….One of my friends works for Bill Richardson and asked me to give to the campaign."), and Forbes Senior Writer Tatiana Serafin ("I don't feel comfortable talking about my politics").

NEXT: The History of Gay Soldiering

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  1. What liberal media?

  2. These days many science journals require the disclosure of possible conflicts of interest, such as where the publishing scientist got their money to do their study.

  3. There is only one solution: Robot journalists….from Mexico. It the only way to be sure.

  4. “What liberal media?”

    The one that bends over backwards to keep their personal biases out of the news and present “objective” reporting.

    Yup, it’s a liberal thing.

  5. Who did Jeffrey Immelt donate to?

  6. Say it with me: the reporter is probably not objective; his methods should be.

    That said, given the whorishness of much journalism, I’m not sure that it matters one way or the other.

  7. The important question/problem here is this. Does mandatory disclosure of political donations open one up to legal(?) discrimination in the workplace? An interesting problem I had not previously considered.

  8. joe,

    Actually, I was ironically name-checking Eric Alterman’s book, which had the insane premise that the news media is biased conservatively.

  9. Although I generally find Atrios to be a stupid-head, one of his media criticisms that I find apt is his critique of the “get quotes from both sides” style of so-called objective journalism.

    When a journalist allows both sides to a dispute to put their spin on that dispute, and refrains from fact-checking or analyzing the statements of either in the interest of “fairness”, it biases the coverage in favor of whoever is willing to be more intellectually dishonest. By simply shamelessly pushing real whoppers on journalists, you can gradually push “objective” coverage in your direction.

    I think it would be helpful if journalists saw their obligation to be objective as an obligation they have to facts, and not an obligation they have to even-handedness.

  10. Yeah, what Fluffy said.

    jf, there are certainly situations where the mainstream media appears to have a conservative bias. For example, one of othe Sunday talk shows had a debate on the Iraq War. To represent conservatives, they had two writers from National Review. For balance, they had two writers for the Washington Post.

    Anyway, the idea that the personal political opinions of reporters in Old Media formats translates directly into a media bias that reflects those reporters’ opinions is silly. It presumes that there are no other opinions besides writers’ that could influence what appears on the page, or that there are any mediating forces, such as the “two sides to every story, and they should always be treated with equal respect” bias that Fluffy mentions.

  11. Nick, I noticed the lack of a disclosure statement at the bottom. Are you shilling for Big Disclosure?

  12. There are quite a few people who seem to make a living by pointing out (perceived) left wing bais in the MSM.

    Is it a case of where there is smoke, there is fire or is bias in the eye of the beholder?

  13. Of course perception of bias is in the eye of the beholder — However, when study after study after poll after poll show that the national media lean primarily towards the Dem side of the playing field — excuuuse me if one points that out as evidence of media bias in their perception and subsequent reporting of events. When Columbia/Annenberg/et al start showing polls and studies that consistantly reflect a 50/50 split in party support – only then will I believe that MY perception is the problem.

  14. Ummm, is it really that hard to discern the libertarian viewpoint on a proposal to let the government force private citizens working for private corporations that allegedly act as watchdogs looking for government misconduct to submit the minute details of their First Amendment exercise of political free speech to a government that, through the FCC, has the power to yank their license?

  15. When a journalist refuses to discuss her politics, it tells me she’s worried that she hasn’t completely covered up her agenda. Not only does the press overwhelmingly support Democrats, they knowingly shape the news so that the public will think Democrats are great and Republicans are either stupid or evil.

  16. bendover,

    Most physicians are Republicans. Does that mean their prescriptions must necessarily reflect conservative bias?

    reporters != media. The actual words on the page, the people who get the time to put forward their ideas, the images and words coming from the teevee – that’s what you need to look at when you’re discussing media bias.

    they knowingly shape the news so that the public will think Democrats are great and Republicans are either stupid or evil.

    You know, by, like, giving Republicans much more airtime than Democrats, repeating Republicans’ talking points, reporting stories that involve partisan disagreements as “he said-she said” stories, even when the Democrats are reporting facts and the Republicans lying – we can just set all of the exhaustively-documented evidence that the media does these things aside, because reporters mostly vote for Democrats.

  17. Look at the disparagement of the very idea that it is possible to pursue objective truth, and set aside partisanship to do straight reporting.

    It’s all coming from Republicans. The idea that there could possibly be such a thing as fair, balanced media is foreign to them.

    And we’re supposed to take what they say about bias in the media seriously? If you can’t even imagine the possibility of fair, objective reporting, how good can you possibly be at telling the difference between biased and unbiased reporting?

  18. Most physicians are Republicans. Does that mean their prescriptions must necessarily reflect conservative bias?

    Remind me what the liberal view of treating contact dermatitis is? No, just goofing.

    You shocked me with that one. All the physicians I know (and I know a couple dozen very well) are raging liberals. And that’s here in the very conservative state of Utah. I trust you know what you’re talking about, but mark me surprised.

  19. Joe, you mean facts like Anwar is a wonderland, Sandy Berger is just sloppy, secret ballots are unfair, second hand smoke kills thousands, global warming will end civilization, political speech is corrupt, etc. etc..

  20. The most stupid analogy: Most physicians are Republicans. Does that mean their prescriptions must necessarily reflect conservative bias?

    The second most stupid analogy: Most hourly wage employees are Democrats. Does that mean the guy at the hardware store will necessarily sell me a screw that goes “lefty tighty” ?

  21. pigwiggle,

    Remind me what the liberal view of treating contact dermatitis is?

    Actual reporting is just as non-partisan. Who what where when why. Letting political ideology cloud that is bad reporting. That’s my point here – one side of this debate holds up fairness, accuracy, and objectivity as the lodestones that should guide reporters, while the other (which always cries about media bias) doesn’t even acknowledge that these things are desireable or possible.

    If my doctor tried to treat my skin rash by, I don’t know, telling me to buy Hillary Clinton bumber stickers, he’d be allowing his politics to interfere with his profession. THAT would be political bias. If he gave me a skin cream, he isn’t biased, EVEN IF he gives money to Democrats.

    On physicians, I’ve seen polling results that show them to be among the most Republican professions in the country – however, it varies greatly by specialty. Hotshot surgeons are more likely to be Republicans than pediatricians, for example.

  22. James Are,

    Although you can’t imagine how truly thrilling your list of imagined anecdotes are, if you want to actually hold an opinion on this matter that doesn’t come from somewhere between your gut and your ass, you might want to actually look at some studies of what, and who, appears on the air or in the print media.

  23. I work in a business that, by my account, is pretty conservative (CPA). We often discuss politics or current events at CPE. Make no doubt about it, if the people I generally come in contact with were reporting for the Times/CBS/NPR different “facts” and “expert opinions” would be highlighted in reporting the news. And you would rightly have reason to call bias on said reporting.

  24. Thank you, bendover, for demonstrating so effectively my point that conservatives cannot even conceive of unbiased media.

    A screw has to turn one way or the other. I guess that’s how you people think about reporting.

    Well, it shows – if the media doesn’t pander to your political bias, the only way you can understand that is to say that it is demonstrating a liberal bias. Literally, there is no difference in your mind between fair and objective reporting and liberal bias. The screw turns left, or it turns right. The media either confirms your worldview, or it is demonstrating liberal bias.

  25. Thank you, bendover, for demonstrating so effectively my point that conservatives cannot even conceive of unbiased media. — joe, I can conceive of an unbiased media – I just try to stay in the real world and acknowlege that none truely exists.

    A screw has to turn one way or the other. I guess that’s how you people think about reporting. — joe, thanks for reading my mind – but in a way your statement is correct – there is NO perfect center.

    Well, it shows – if the media doesn’t pander to your political bias, the only way you can understand that is to say that it is demonstrating a liberal bias. Literally, there is no difference in your mind between fair and objective reporting and liberal bias. The screw turns left, or it turns right. The media either confirms your worldview, or it is demonstrating liberal bias. — joe, pot v. kettle, ever heard of Faux News

  26. “Actual reporting is just as non-partisan. Who what where when why.” – joe

    Really? What study have you read that points this out? I know we’d all appreciate the link.

    “Letting political ideology cloud that is bad reporting.” – joe

    Agreed. Regardless of whether it leans right or left.

    “That’s my point here – one side of this debate holds up fairness, accuracy, and objectivity as the lodestones that should guide reporters, while the other (which always cries about media bias) doesn’t even acknowledge that these things are desireable or possible.” – joe

    joe, don’t you ever get tired of pretending that only Democrats ever stand up for all that is good in the world and vice versa? I’d LOVE to see where you can show a Republican platform plank that talks about how biased journalism is just the natural state of affairs and objective reporting is rightfully dead…

    This is just more of the same partisanship from joe. When someone points out an “objective truth” (like numbers of reporters contributing to one political party far more than another, for example) that doesn’t jibe with his worldview he does an intellectual backflip to reconcile it with his worldview…

    This is pretty much joe’s entire schtick on HNR – how his subjective, unsubstantiated worldview isn’t based on equating everything he likes with Democrats and everything he hates with Republicans. On this site I think most folks hold the two in the same disdainful group: pandering politicians.

  27. joe says: “The idea that there could possibly be such a thing as fair, balanced media is foreign to (Republicans).”

    So it’s a Democratic-oriented news channel that advertises itself as Fair And Balanced?

  28. Pigwiggle says: “All the physicians I know (and I know a couple dozen very well) are raging liberals. And that’s here in the very conservative state of Utah. I trust you know what you’re talking about, but mark me surprised.”

    That might reflect more on the kind of people you hang out with than the overall demographics, Pigwiggle — especially in Utah. I’m married to a physician, and know a large cross-section of the doctors in this state, and they tend to be more Republican than not (perhaps a 60/40 split), despite living in Deep Blue Hawaii. I think its largely because getting sued by liberal Democratic lawyers who contribute heavily to Democratic candidates sours them a bit on statism — that, and being higher-income makes them wind end up footing much of the bill for the welfare state.

    But then again, it could be a reflection of the slightly surreal affect of Mormonism on Utah, which causes the state to routinely wind up near #1 or #50 on any given objective measure of society, from smoking percentage to Prozac use to political orientation.

  29. “Actual reporting is just as non-partisan. Who what where when why. Letting political ideology cloud that is bad reporting. That’s my point here – one side of this debate holds up fairness, accuracy, and objectivity as the lodestones that should guide reporters, while the other (which always cries about media bias) doesn’t even acknowledge that these things are desireable or possible.”

    joe, it isn’t really possible to be non-partisan and objective in reporting about politics, even if the reporter consciously tries to do so, unless you’re reciting dry facts unrelated to politics, such as wheat prices in farm country. For example, if you try to show both sides of a partisan debate in Congress, both the Republican and Democratic view, you’re being biased against libertarians by leaving out their point of view — and the Green party by leaving out their point of view — and the socialist point of view …

    Even reciting just objective facts reflects a point of view — try reading Harper’s Index for an extreme version of that.

    There’s only so much time available to present news. Someone has to decide what to include and what to leave out, and even if they try to be even-handed, they will have to ignore certain points of view due to the time constraints. And if you have statist reporters who don’t even understand the libertarian point of view, that bias will show through even if they pride themselves on balancing between both the liberal Democratic POV AND the moderate Democratic POV.

  30. ONE NEW MEXICAN ASKS READERS TO CLOSELY EXAMINE BILL RICHARDSON’S FOREIGN
    POLICY.

    I am so glad to see more and more websites are strongly warming to Richardson’s campaign. He
    is my governor; I have known him personally for 30 years. What Richardson has achieved in the New Mexico Legislature is remarkable, but I won’t recite the accomplishments. I do want
    to see him President, but I am in no way connected officially to his campaign.

    The so called “top-tier” candidates together, all 3 of them, have a collective resume still lesser in quality to Bill Richardson’s! I am certain that Richardson’s real genius and his strongest suit is in international affairs, and that will be vital (and I don’t mean as just a future US Secretary of State!), if we are going to even attempt to rebuild the
    shattered US image internationally, after six years of Halliburton-driven corporate kleptocracy. His debate skills have not been as honed and polished as the 3 lawyers in so-called “top tier,” but that is fixable. His biography is great (Between Worlds: the Making of an American Life), and the new book on Energy Policy will be just as good.

    Here is what I consider the bottom line: you don’t have to be a Marxian or Hegelian or a Ph.D Economist to comprehend that our domestic economy is suffering and going to get worse resulting from the on-going international
    implications of the screwed up foreign policy of this administration, so thoroughly based on corporate needs and demands; as long as we continue to see appointments like Bush’s trade negotiator Zoelick made over into President of the World Bank to replace “Wolfiewits,” don’t expect ANY major improvements in the last two years of Bush’s tenure, especially in the
    trickle down economic realms which would improve the lives of individual
    American consumers.

    Richardson has repeatedly made it clear that Congress could deauthorize the Iraq War, and that he personally would end it the first day of his Presidency.

    My prediction: Richardson is going to win in Nevada, and he is going to do very very well in Iowa, New Hampshire, and California, I think winning in at least one more of those states. May I suggest that you and your readers communicate to David Contarino and Amanda Cooper, his Campaign Manager, and Deputy CM, or to Richardson directly through the email function on his NM governor website? These people are very open to new ideas,
    questions, strategies, insights, etc., and I encourage anyone reading to take the time to contact them by phone or by email, even if you have just one question on a policy matter, or want to tell Bill Richardson what YOU think.

    Truly,
    Stephen Fox
    New Millennium Fine Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico

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