The Donor Ethic

Money for nothing?

Yesterday, conservative bloggers had a field day with MSNBC’s investigative online report, confirming their suspicions: journalists lean their pocketbooks to the left! Bill Dedman, an investigative reporter for MSNBC, reported the political donations of journalists as well as their reaction to the news, to which The Drudge Report gleefully proclaimed: “The Great Divide: Reporters Give Dems Money Over Republicans 9 to 1!”

Swapland’s Ana Marie Cox quips, “Will there be hyperventilating? Oh, there will be hyperventilating. I find it difficult to get worked up over the fact that some journalists materially support specific political causes.”

Time’s media critic James Poniewozik presents a slightly more pragmatic angle: “Should reporters donate? The easy answer is no, because we need to hang on to every dime we can.” More seriously, he argues we can never “create the illusion of impartiality,” and “a reporter who covers public affairs is going to have opinions about those public issues unless he or she is a moron.”

Echoing Eric Alterman’s “What Liberal Media?”, Matthew Yglesias asserts that these donations balance the enormous corporate influence favoring Republicans: “Meanwhile, to offer the standard liberal counter to this sort of thing, where’s MSNBC’s report on the political giving of executives at General Electric? Well, I can tell you that in 2006, GE’s PAC gave $807,282 to Republicans and just $474,118 to Democrats. In 2004 there was a similar division of funds, in 2002 ‘only’ 60 percent of it went to the GOP. Indeed, as you can see here essentially every PAC in the media sector backed the GOP over the Democrats.”

Yglesias also criticizes the report for not substantiating the link between donations and biased reporting. For instance, the piece reports an editor at The Atlantic giving $500 to the Democratic National Committee, but does not explain the influence she had on the magazine’s coverage.

The National Review’s Stephen Spruiell shares his biggest concern: “The list of contributions from wire-service reporters… [they] are supposed to be the true standard-bearers for the journalistic notion of objectivity.” Sarcastically, he asks “Two writers for Salon gave to Democrats? Did you need CSI for that one?”

Perhaps the most surprising revelation—some unlikely donors—debunked conventional wisdom. A PBS affiliate host donated to President Bush and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and several Fox News affiliate personnel donated to Democratic campaigns. And wouldn’t the New York Times ethicist see the journalistic principal at stake? Cohen, the Times ethics columnist, donated in August 2004 to

The responses of these journalists ranged from “Yikes” and “I mean, what the fuck, man?” to “My readers know my views.” Some explained their donations as contributions to personal friends or family; others claimed they were “free agents” at the time, or cited network policy, which allows political donations; several didn’t return phone calls.

All in all, Poniewozik hits the nail on its head: “What should not be allowed is for a news reporter to make his or her work into a political donation.” Even so, a campaign contribution is one step to a partisan “political donation” via a print or broadcast story.

New Yorker Editor David Remnick takes a similar position: “If what they write is fair, and they respond to editing and counter-arguments with an open mind, that to me is the way we work.” But is this possible? Maybe. To some extent, these tendencies are compromised once a journalist contributes to a party or candidate. As a general principle, logic tells us hard news reporters shouldn’t donate to political candidates—if we want unvarnished, dispassionate stories, in which the public can trust.

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Alexander Heffner is an intern at CJR.