Appearances of impropriety
My wife is still cheesed off about the sign.
It was a dozen or more years ago. She was volunteering for a candidate for municipal office, and she mentioned one evening that she planned to put a campaign sign in front of the house. “You can’t do that,” I said.
“Why not?” she asked. “I live here.”
“The problem is that I live here, too, and I work for The Sun, which means that I would be advocating a candidate. I can’t be seen to do that.”
She didn’t put up the sign, but she still gets a little huffy at the reminder that my job constricts her freedom.
Now there is a brouhaha, kerfuffle or what you will over the publication of a list of political contributions by employees of various news media. (It’s a plural, remember?) Since the original publication of the list on msnbc.com, there has been widespread discussion of the propriety.
Some of the people listed have claimed that since they are not reporters, they are not journalists. Sorry, but if you work in a news organization, as a designer or a clerk or just as a damn anonymous copy editor, you are identified with that operation, and your activities will be used as a foundation for cries of “Aha! Bias!”
So I don’t contribute money to political parties or candidates or lobbying organizations. I don’t put partisan bumper stickers on the car. (My daughter, without my knowledge, stuck on a bumper sticker that reads, “People who think they know everything annoy people who do,” but she is a Swarthmore grad, and facts are facts.) There are journalists who do not vote in elections lest they compromise their impartiality, a principle I respect without endorsing.
All that used to be a matter of private judgment and discretion, but in recent years it has increasingly become a matter of employers’ policies. The Sun, like The New York Times and a number of other news organizations, has a detailed ethics policy. A good bit of it has to do with avoidance of financial impropriety, such as using association with the paper for personal benefit, but it also includes prohibitions on political activities, such as running for office, signing petitions, contributing to partisan organizations.
When the ethics policies were first put in force, a number of colleagues raised the question, Why should working for a newspaper mean that I should surrender some of my civil liberties? Especially since the corporations that employ journalists are free to make partisan contributions.
It is a troubling question. But suspicion about the news media’s probity, with repeated instances of plagiarism and fabrication in recent years, and a generation’s worth of accusation of political bias and agenda, compels us to show that we have clean hands. And an ethics code, imperfect mechanism as it is, can help to direct us away from unconscious bias, which is far more insidious and widespread than the overt kind.