Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Update: Marquette Tribune Conflict of Interest Policy

We recently reported about the Marquette Tribune’s new “conflict of interest” policy that bans members of the College Republicans and College Democrats from staff positions.

Today we reached Jen Haberkorn, now a reporter for the Washington Times and (during the 2004-2005 school year) Editor of the Marquette Tribune.

We reported that the issue of whether a member of the College Republicans came up

. . . during the 2004-2005 school year in connection with a Tribune reporter who was a member of the College Republicans. This reporter informed Jen Haberkorn, then Editor, of the affiliation, and Haberkorn saw no problem with it.
Haberkorn insists that she did indeed dislike the idea of a Tribune reporter being a member of a partisan organization and “didn’t want [the reporter] to be a member of both [the Tribune staff and the College Republicans].”

However, in the absence of any written policy, Haberkorn didn’t feel she had a basis for raising the issue.

This implies that the prohibition on College Republicans and College Democrats being on staff wasn’t concocted merely for the purpose of excluding a Republican, although the fact that a College Republican was on staff appears to have been a catalyst for formalizing the policy.

There was a clear understanding that no reporter should report on an organization of which they are a member.

We asked Haberkorn about other activist organizations such as JUSTICE, the Gay/Straight Alliance or Students for an Environmentally Active Campus. Was the understanding that they were allowed to be on staff?

She responded that this “wasn’t an issue” and the Tribune “didn’t have anything like that happen.”

On this issue, the new policy doesn’t appear to be a mere codification of well-established understandings, but rather a case where some people made some judgment calls.

Campus Opinion

Not surprisingly, both the GOP3.COM blog, and the liberal Campus Tavern objected to the policy.

Campus Tavern headlined their article “The Thought Police Strike Again.”

The author, Ryan Alexander, disagrees with us that the policy singles out the College Republicans. But he goes on:
I still find this new policy completely asinine because it asserts that students in non-party affiliated student orgs as being on higher journalistic and ethical ground than those in College Democrats or College Republicans.

Does the Marquette Tribune feel that its writers are not capable of leaving their personal life out of their reporting?

If so, then the Marquette Tribune must not think much of the intellectual and ethical capabilities of its writers.
Alexander then proceeds to list practical difficulties with the policy. Is a Tribune reporter forbidden to merely go to the meetings of the College Democrats or College Republicans? Is the reporter allowed to give money to a political party, candidate, organization, or cause? Party giving would seem to be ruled out, but if a reporter can belong to the Gay/Straight Alliance presumably the reporter can contribute to the Human Rights Campaign. But if so, how is this somehow better than contributing to the Democratic Party?

GOP3.COM is likewise disturbed by the implications of the policy.
Why is it okay for a campus news reporter to be a member of GSA and at the same time cover a gay marriage debate, yet a sports reporter could never belong to College Democrats?

Why is it okay for the social justice reporter to be a member of JUSTICE and cover the SOA [School of the Americas] trip, yet an arts and entertainment reporter could not belong to the College Republicans?

[. . .]

And what about the religion reporter — in order to maintain the first principle, can your religion reporter not attend Mass or Lutheran Campus Ministry or any other group that he might cover? And if that’s so, isn’t not attending any church an expression of preference in and of itself?
Are Partisans Evil?

The assumption behind the policy seems to be that while it’s OK to be a member of an issue group, being an actual partisan — making it clear you favor the Democrats or the Republicans — is somehow suspect.

This is questionable in the extreme.

In our experence, members of JUSTICE are on average to the left of the College Democrats. Members of Students for Life are (at least on the abortion issue) going to be more monolithic than the College Republicans.

Being a partisan like the writers for the GOP3.COM and Campus Tavern blogs, seems to us a good thing. You have to learn to be a team player. You have to learn to compromise and seek accomodation with people on the other side.

You learn not to say certain kinds of things because it hurts the interests of the party (admittedly, Howard Dean hasn’t gotten this point, but other Democrats certainly have). While partisanship doesn’t imply pristine lack of bias, it does imply a degree of self-restraint and responsibility.

But What Is the Point of the Rules?

It is true that rules like this are common in real-world journalistic organizations. But why is this so?

Rules like this are designed not to prevent bias, but to conceal the fact that there likely is bias. If a bunch of Journal-Sentinel reporters were observed participating in a local pro-abortion demonstration, people might look critically at abortion stories in the paper.

And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Daniel Suhr has an excellent point when he writes:
In the end, I’ll take openness and full disclosure over certain preferences masked by a controlling policy any day.
Indeed, why not ask staff members how they vote, what political organizations they belong to, and what causes they have given money to?

And list that on the staff page.

But doing that might create pressure for news organizations to have real diversity (as opposed to politically correct “diversity”) among their staffs.

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