Covering the Election

Journalists shower Hillary Clinton with campaign cash

October 17, 2016
Hillary Clinton speaks with supporters at a campaign rally at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix

New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, a Pulitzer Prize winner, spent the Republican National Convention pen-pricking presidential nominee Donald Trump as a misogynist shyster running an “ugly and xenophobic campaign.”

What Nussbaum didn’t disclose: she contributed $250 to Democrat Hillary Clinton in April.

On the left coast, Les Waldron, an Emmy Award-winning assignment editor at television station KFMB, the CBS affiliate in San Diego, swung right in July, shooting $28 to Trump.

And Carole Simpson, a former ABC “World News Tonight” anchor who in 1992 became the first African-American woman to moderate a presidential debate, is not moderate about her  politics: the current Emerson College distinguished journalist-in-residence and regular TV news guest has given Clinton $2,800.

Conventional wisdom holds that journalists are bastions of neutrality who mustn’t root for Team Red or Team Blue, either in word or deed. But during this election season, several hundred news professionals have aligned themselves with Clinton or Trump by personally donating money.

People identified in federal campaign finance filings as journalists, reporters, news editors or television anchors–as well as other donors known to be working in journalism–have combined to give more than $396,000 to the presidential campaigns of Clinton and Trump, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis.

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More than 96 percent of that cash has benefited Clinton: About 430 people who work in journalism have, through August, combined to give about $382,000 to the Democratic nominee, the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis indicates.

About 50 identifiable journalists have combined to give about $14,000 to Trump. (Talk radio ideologues and paid TV pundits are not included in the tally.)

Generally, the law obligates federal candidates only to disclose the names of people making contributions of more than $200 during one election cycle. So it’s likely more journalists have given the Clinton and Trump campaigns cash, but in amounts too small to trigger reporting requirements.

Each news professional offers his or her own unique take on a basic question: Why risk credibility–even one’s livelihood–to help pad a presidential candidate’s campaign account? 

Simpson describes herself as an “academic” and “former journalist.” Therefore, she says she’s “free to do many things I was prohibited from doing as a working journalist,” including giving money to Clinton.

Waldron, of KFMB in San Diego, describes himself as a “lower-case ‘l’ libertarian,” and believes journalists who both vote and make small-dollar political donations are within their rights. 

Said The New Yorker’s Nussbaum: “I rarely write about politics, but it’s true that the RNC-on-TV posts verged on punditry, and I can understand the concern about disclosure.”


Donations often banned

Major news organizations often restrict their journalists from making campaign contributions.

The overriding concern: contributions will compromise journalists’ impartiality or seed the perception that journalists are biased. 

The New York Timesethics handbook declares that its staffers may not give money to, or raise money for, political candidates or election causes. Doing so “would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides,” it reads.

The Associated Press is even more blunt, stating that “under no circumstances should [journalists] donate money to political organizations or political campaigns.”

CNN spokeswoman Bridget Leininger said the cable network “does not allow editorial staff to contribute to candidates or political parties.”

A review of several dozen newsroom ethics policies indicates many other notable news outlets have similar no-political-donations mandates. The Center for Public Integrity’s handbook states that employees are “prohibited from engaging in political advocacy or donating to political candidates at any level of government.”

Indeed, the vast majority of journalists do not give money to politicians.

“Not having that affiliation helps me feel more independent,” said Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist, and a former New York Times public editor.  

So concerned about bias was former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. that he didn’t even vote.


No restrictions

Strict policies are not, however, universal. What’s prohibited at one organization may be permissible at another.

Some outlets also differentiate among employees: A reporter covering a governmental agency, for example, might be punished for cutting checks to a candidate, but not the arts correspondent. 

Orange County Register restaurant critic Brad Johnson in California this year made dozens of small-dollar contributions to Clinton’s campaign totaling more than $750.

Digital First Media’s Southern California News Group, of which The Orange County Register is a part, expressly prohibits news reporters from engaging in campaign activities “related to candidates, campaigns or issues which they may cover,” news group Executive Editor Frank Pine said. But while Johnson fits the definition of “journalist,” Pine doesn’t consider Johnson a news reporter–and therefore, he’s free to give money.

Johnson concurs: “I don’t cover politics….I’m just interested in finding the best pad thai.”

Ryne Dittmer covers hard news as the county and education editor of the Liberty Tribune of Liberty, Missouri. He’s contributed $625 to Clinton’s presidential committee.

But Liberty Tribune Managing Editor Amy Neal said Dittmer, who declined to comment, did not violate any standards.

“We support the individual’s right to align themselves in their personal lives with the political ideologies that they choose, just as we support their right to worship–or not–in the way they choose,” Neal said.

Coverage area is Santa Cruz Sentinel city editor Julie Copeland’s rationale for why contributing nearly $300 to Clinton’s campaign is kosher, but campaigns closer to home are not.

“I supervise local news coverage,” Copeland said. “I do not, and would never, involve myself in any city council, school board or other small municipal race we cover.”

Television host Larry King, who now hosts a program on Russian-owned TV network RT and has called Trump “a great friend,” is a Clinton donor, having given her campaign $2,700 in May. In June, King said he intends vote for Clinton because he disagrees with Trump’s stances on such issues as immigration.  

Several journalists employed by Thomson Reuters, which operates the Reuters news agency, have likewise given Clinton money–and one has given to Trump. That’s fine, said company spokeswoman Abbe Serphos, as “Reuters journalists are permitted to make charitable or political contributions as long as they don’t conflict with their reporting responsibilities.”

Fox Sports spokesman Erik Arneson, responding to questions about three current and former employees who gave Clinton money, said the network “supports employees’ personal involvement in the political process as long as it is compliant with applicable laws.”

Media firm executives are also often free from corporate policies restricting political donations. 

Damien Brouillard, the Washington Post’s director of finance and comptroller, for example, is among those helping fund Clinton’s presidential campaign.

So, too, are former New Republic Publisher Chris Hughes, Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour, Hollywood Reporter Publisher Lynne Segall, Elle Editor in Chief Roberta Myers and Lesley Jane Seymour, the former editor in chief of Marie Clare. Each has given Clinton at least $2,700.

Although Trump has often been more accessible to news reporters than Clinton, his campaign has banned certain organizations from his rallies, and he regularly complains about his coverage by the “crooked media.” 

So how do Trump campaign officials feel about journalists and media executives giving money to Clinton?

“Considering that we’re witnessing the single biggest coordinated media attack in political history, it should come as no surprise,” said Trump spokesman Jason Miller. “If the [Federal Election Commission] viewed their biased hit pieces against Mr. Trump as in-kind contributions, they would have exceeded their maximum allowable gift limits a long time ago.”

Several news reporters or journalism professionals, including Sally York of The Argus-Press of Owosso, Michigan, refused to discuss their political giving in 2016.

York, who covers local affairs and sometimes writes about politicians, has made contributions to Clinton’s campaign that add up to $374. 

Rick Hasen, a University of California, Irvine professor who edits the Election Law Blog, says journalists shouldn’t abstain from making campaign contributions–big or small–just because they’re journalists.

“I do not see it as a problem so long as it is adequately disclosed,” said Hasen.


Evidence of bias?

For some journalists, campaign contributions do become problematic.

Ask MSNBC, which in 2010 suspended Keith Olbermann, who hosted a news show, for making contributions to Democratic political candidates.

Last year, Karen Loberg, a photojournalist at California’s Ventura County Star,  made a $1,000 contribution to the Clinton campaign in order to attend a fundraiser in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she was visiting a friend. Loberg said she thought the contribution would “go under the radar,” but she nevertheless defended her right to give it.

“It’s my freedom of speech–what I do on my own time is my business,” Loberg said, adding that her friend later reimbursed her for the $1,000 Clinton donation anyway.

Except such a reimbursement is troublesome: Loberg’s name–not that of her friend, who Loberg declined to identify–appears on federal financial disclosures filed by the Clinton campaign. Such a transaction is informally known as a “straw donation” and is, on its face, illegal: “No person shall make a contribution in the name of another person,” federal law states.

Loberg said she did not know straw donations are illegal. She also said she was, at the time she donated to Clinton’s campaign, unaware that the Ventura County Star frowned on its newsroom employees making political contributions.

John Moore, editor of the Ventura County Star, said Loberg’s donation is a “personnel matter,” and referred questions about Loberg’s donation to parent company Gannett, which declined to comment. Gannett did note that its journalists should “refrain from any activity that may compromise our goal to maintain journalistic integrity.”

Loberg later expressed regret. “I’m very concerned about losing my job,” she said. (Gannett confirmed she is still employed by the Ventura County Star.)

Other journalists have this year appeared to violate their news organizations’ political activity policies, including Melia Robinson, a reporter at Business Insider who contributed $541 to Clinton’s campaign.

Business Insider spokesman Mario Ruiz declined to comment on Robinson’s donation but pointed to the online publication’s employee conflict of interest policy, which expressly prohibits several kinds of political activity, including contributions.

Robinson did not respond to requests for comment.

Jonah Kessel, a Hong Kong-based staff videographer for The New York Times, gave US Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign several hundred dollars earlier this year. For reasons unclear, the Sanders campaign later refunded the donations to Kessel, who did not respond to requests for comment.

“Under newsroom rules, Times journalists should not make political contributions,” New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said, adding, “Jonah’s editors are discussing this issue with him.”

At ESPN, baseball news editor Claire Smith has made numerous small-dollar contributions to Clinton’s campaign that add up to almost $600. Smith, who in a tweet last week described Trump as a “would-be dictator & sexual predator,” did not return requests for comment, and ESPN spokesman Ben Cafardo declined to comment.

But ESPN’s political advocacy policy states that employees such as Smith “must avoid being publicly identified with various sides of political issues” and that the sports network “discourages public participation in matters of political advocacy or controversy among editorial employees.”

Journalists’ political contributions are not, however, always what they appear to be.

Lauren Goode, editor of tech and culture news outlet The Verge, explained that her $500 contribution in February to the Clinton campaign wasn’t about supporting Clinton’s candidacy–Goode just wanted, for reporting purposes, to get inside a fundraising event in Silicon Valley.

“Prior to the event I discussed the particular circumstances of this with the editor in chief at The Verge,” Goode explained, “and he approved it.” 


Don’t trust the liberal media?

About 28 percent of journalists say they affiliate with the Democratic Party, 7 percent the Republican Party and 14 percent an “other” party, according to a 2014 study by Indiana University-Bloomington professors Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver.

The rest of journalists–more than 50 percent–say they’re not affiliated with any party.

Barbara Hough Roda, executive editor of LNP, the largest news organization in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said she wants her reporters to act without favor to any political party and for the public to indeed perceive her newsroom as independent.

But LNP has no policy prohibiting journalists from making political contributions, freeing LNP sportswriter Paula Wolf, who did not return a request for comment, to give money to Clinton’s campaign, as she did to the tune of more than $300.

Will LNP consider revising its policy after the 2016 election?

“I believe we will,” Roda said.

Nussbaum, the New Yorker critic, has already instituted a new personal policy for making political campaign contributions.

“I’m not planning to contribute money in the future,” she said.

Dave Levinthal and Michael Beckel are reporters at the Center for Public Integrity. Levinthal is a senior political reporter, and Michael Beckel is a politics reporter. The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, DC.