Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ethics 101 | When publishers and politics collide

Many of you know that 25 news employees at five Wisconsin papers got in trouble in March when public documents revealed they'd signed petitions calling for a vote to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The case prompted a blistering ethical debate on how much a newspaper can limit the free speech rights of news employees in order to shield the paper from charges of political bias.

But what happens if a publisher in another state posts a comment on the widely read Huffington Post, urging the defeat of President Obama? Does the publisher get a pass because he isn't a newsroom employee?

Indeed, a comment just like that appeared this month on a Huffington story about the Supreme Court's upholding the health care reform law. "Hope the headline soon reads 'Obama defeated in a landslide,'" the comment says. "This guy has to go!"

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A Gannett publisher signed the comment using their Facebook login, according to one of my readers. I've written to the publisher, on the chance that a family member with access to their Facebook login posted the remark. I cc'd the publisher's top editor on my note, too, but haven't heard back from either one.

In Wisconsin, the papers didn't disclose the names of employees who signed the petition. But it said none of them were reporters or assigning editors.

Nevertheless, management accused them of crossing an ethical line. Whether the employees were ever punished wasn't made public at the time. But in a memo, the managing editor of the Post-Crescent in Appleton said: "This is a serious matter that calls for serious measures."

So, would it be an equally serious matter for the publisher in question?


  1. Ethics my ass. A Wisconsin paper withheld emails it obtained between school district workers and people pushing for a new school referendum until after the vote. The information might have swayed some voters to vote no.

    But since the paper was shilling for the referendum to pass, they withheld the information until after the vote.

  2. Kids who study journalism from community colleges to Poynter, learn that they should not be associated with political campaigns. Publishers should be even MORE aware of their responsibility because of their dealings with advertisers as well when it comes to trying to influence the news or endorsements. Let the newspaper make an endorsement, let columnists support who they wish, but publishers? They must be held to the utmost in standards of ethics. Or does the Gannett Code of Ethics all are required to read and sign not apply to them?

  3. What's a publisher - we lost ours years ago. We have to share a GM with another site besides.

  4. Publishers aren't supposed to drive news coverage (in a perfect world), but they DO have an editorial voice.

    I may be slicing the newsprint a bit thin here, but a publisher expressing an opinion is less egregious than a reporter doing the same, since a reporter has more direct access to the reader.

    All that being said . . . make your point IN PRINT in YOUR PAPER and sign YOUR NAME.

    Putting your comments on Facebook or Twitter is simultaneously trivial and a time bomb.

    Not to mention it says: MY PRINT PLATFORM IS S-O-O 20th CENTURY.

  5. Who is the publisher? You have no reason or obligation to withhold their name.

  6. Link to the Huffington Post story?

  7. 11:48 Don't look to Poynter for advice on good journalism.

  8. I don't see the ethical violation, but how about exercising tact and recognizing the power of the position? What kind of person does not even recognize their own influence? Don't these people even catch of whiff of their own funk?

    I know better than to bring politics or religion to the job, even as a lowly Production Director. Call it being PC if you want, but perhaps we could use a bit of tact and respect these days.

  9. So, the publisher can do it on his own editorial page but not Huffington? The only sin may be not doing at home first, then posting of his opinion with a reference back to his paper. If you are going to have an opinion, have it in your edition first. Maybe he was sounding off because his team at home are liberal and won't boldly go.

  10. I think the public is over the masquerade news media has used for a few decades now. News can be delivered objectively, professionally and in context by people who have personal opinions, which every person has. News is formulaic.

    I find that I have no opinion only when I have no knowledge. But opinion based on misinformation, which is the only way I can wrap my head around the unjudicious, extreme opinion of the publisher, is true disgrace for a so-called news organization.

    That said, I say what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

  11. In years of social media moderating, I've seen many a prominent public figure reduced to idiocy in the impulsive "debates" that go on in story comments.

    Even when their handles are anonymous, the moderators often have enough information to know who they are. If people only knew what their respected public figures really thought and how they bully ...

  12. Publishers have influence on the editorial product. If Gannett doesn't want its readers, whatever's left of them that is, to question a paper's coverage, then everyone, from the top down, should not get involved in politics.

    But of course, we know that only applies to the lowly employees. Executives and upper management can be their usual hypocritical selves and not apply the rules to themselves.

  13. I think what the publisher did is worse, because it's unnecessary and is directly his opinion attributed to him.

    The Wisconsin 25 were exercising their legal voting rights. People who weren't registered voters weren't valid signatures, and the petitions weren't public until after the organizers won the recall and the Koch Brothers' posse went to court to open the petitions to could get a pound of flesh from signers and intimidate voters.

    Signing a petition requesting a referendum isn't a statement of how one will vote. It's only a request for a poll of registered, informed voters. Assuming the Wisconsin 25 signed it for partisan purpose is speculative and not based on fact. Any journo ascribing opinion to the 25 should go back to journalism school.

  14. 8:40 AM - Not to rehash the whole Wisc. debate, but your boneheaded stubbornness in holding to a discredited and dishonest position hardly is a badge of honor for the profession.

    In particular, the claim that we can't infer the petitioners' partisan allegiance is laughable in light of your resort to well-known partisan tropes and bogeymen.

  15. Did I just see the words liberal and Gannett in the same sentence? Team? Since when does a publisher feel, act, or participate as part of a "team?"

  16. 12:09 PM, your post is ironic to laud your self-professed superior "badge of honor of professionalism." You jump to a false conclusion you know I'm someone who has posted my opinion on this subject before.

    And because you have a personal grudge against me, you dismiss my point of view without open-minded, factual analysis.

    A factual analysis on the subject is that one cannot conclude absolutely if or how someone who signed a petition for a recall ballot will vote. If there were a poll of the numbers who signed it and didn't vote in that election, I suspect you'd be surprised.

    Someone who was convinced Walker would survive a recall ballot could be motivated to sign the petition because of the superior position it gave Walker's post-election policies as validated mistream.

  17. 7:40: Sounds like one of the Gannett suits wrote your script, with as much bad grammar and as indecipherable as it is.


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