Hiding Bias behind Ethics Rules
William Pates, a San Francisco Chronicle’s letters editor who gave $400 to the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, has been placed on paid leave, pending an investigation into whether his campaign contributions violated the newspaper’s ethics policy. Grade the News, a media watchdog organization based at Stanford University, had contacted the paper about Pates’s donations to Kerry and other Democrats.
OK, readers, an Ethics Scoreboard pop quiz: what’s the ethical problem with Pates’ donations?
Conflict of interest? Buuuuzzz!! Wrong answer. Now if the Democrats gave Perry money, that would be a conflict of interest. But he gave them money, because, presumably, he supports their policies. Is that wrong?
Editorial page editor John Diaz, who suspended Pates, thinks he has the answer. He pointed out that the specific nature of Pates’s job meant there needed to be a clear dividing line between the letters editor and the subjects of the news. “The selection of letters to the editor is a very important job. It’s a gatekeeper role that can have a great deal of influence on what the perception is of public reaction to various issues,” Diaz said. “So I think it’s essential that the person in that role establish and maintain a position of independence.”
Ah! So giving the donation shattered that “position of independence.” But if Pates hadn’t given the donation, he would be in the clear, right, Mr. Diaz? Still supporting John Kerry and the Democrats, still very much persuaded by the liberal take on national issues, but but what? “Maintaining a position of independence?”
No, of course not. His level of independence, or put another way, his degree of bias, would be exactly the same as if he made a donation. The difference would be that the public wouldn’t know what his bias was. So his “ethics violation” was to do something that publicly exposed his likely biases.
So here’s another question: What the heck kind of an ethics principle is that?
The answer to that question is easy: an invalid one. If Pates is a “gate-keeper,” then the public needs to know what his leanings are to gauge how good a job he is doing keeping his editorial judgment as fair and balanced as possible. There’s nothing wrong with his expressing his political preferences, but they should be disclosed to the readers. The Chronicle’s ban on political contributions by reporters and editors attacks the clear indications of a political bias rather than the existence of the bias itself. This is totally backwards. The remedy for suspected bias is disclosure. We get our news from human beings, which means from biased sources. Tell us what the biases are, and we can judge whether we are being well informed or not.
This is symptomatic of the media’s persistent and absurd denial of bias. The Pew Foundation’s survey found that only 12% of newsroom staffs nationwide regarded themselves as conservatives. That’s neither sinister nor surprising, but there is certainly the threat of bias in that statistic. So news media: don’t pretend that a reporter’s ideological beliefs have no effect on whom she believes and what arguments she finds persuasive; don’t make the silly argument that a politically opinionated editor will think the same letters are worthy of publication as an editor with the opposite views. Just tell us what their biases are! That will make them more careful and us more alert to inadvertent (or advertent) distortions.
If your White House correspondent is a registered Republican who was president of the Young Republicans in college, let him give to the Bush campaign, and then tell us all about it. You might have to put two ideologically balanced reporters on certain stories that wouldn’t be bad, would it? (Remember that Woodward was a Republican and Bernstein was a Democrat!). You might have to hire a more balanced newsroom too, because it won’t look good to have all your reporters giving donations to the same side.
And that brings us back to where we started. The donations aren’t the problem. Bias is the problem. Donations help us look for bias. “Ethics” rules like The Chronicle’s are in place to hide ethical problems, not to solve them.