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August 9, 2004

Unity and the Ovation for John Kerry: Letters to the Debate, 1-3

Here's my letter to Romenesko and one from a journalist, Linda Picone, former Star Tribune. Me: "Diversity hiring assumes that minority journalists will exert and express themselves within the profession." Picone: "I wonder why anyone can support the idea that journalistic 'credibility' rests on keeping things secret from the public." And other reactions.

Plus (scroll down) Native American journalist Jeff Shaw was there: Kerry spoke to Unity’s issues, so he got the response.

Background is here: “The Crowd’s Reaction Made Some Unity Delegates Uncomfortable.”


Is it ethical to limit public expression by off duty journalists in a heated election campaign that arouses political passions everywhere?

To: Instapundit; and Romensko Letters.

From: Jay Rosen

The receptions for Kerry and Bush are generating above average buzz in the press and blog domains. These streams contribute to one another. People are raising questions, and the complaints of journalists (unprofessional!) and conservatives (liberal!) are merging. Many Unity members are quoted with reservations. Others, I’m sure, feel the organization has nothing to apologize for.

I’m one of them. I agree that the vigorous response to Kerry—by some, not all—is a question of journalism ethics, and of professionalism, and to me the ethics of it all begins with protecting freedom of expression for minority members in that profession, who are also employees of a powerful industry. If you begin there, then “express yourself in the privacy of the voting booth” does nothing to address the ethics problem. Is it ethical to limit public expression by off duty journalists in a heated election campaign that arouses passions everywhere? As for credibility: is a mask always credible?

The whole logic of diversity hiring assumes that minority journalists will exert and express themselves within the councils of the profession, and—for example—at daily meetings in newsrooms. Freedom of speech in public settings is not a trivial issue for people who band together to make their voices heard in journalism.

“It’s just unprofessional to show a response, for or against” is the conclusion I sense building out there. But I don’t sense much room for dissent—for diversity—among those who have groaned over the crowd’s display for Kerry. Professionalism isn’t a static thing; and there are various views of responsibility alive out there.

Here’s one to toss in the mix: “I have a responsibility to remember that I am a citizen, with a political life like other citizens, and I ought to participate in American democracy when I can. And as long as it does not interfere with my professional duties, I shall.” Such a view is not automatically unprofessional. It wants to refine what being a good professional means. It’s a minority sentiment. That’s why I say Unity has nothing to apologize for.

But there is plenty to debate. Unity has a lively convention home page and an experiment in real time blogging going. Why don’t they say something— preferably real, interesting and responsive? You know, step into the debate. Bring some voices from the organization—diverse ones—into the mix. Instead of running from the reaction to Kerry, interpret it.


Does journalistic “credibility” rest on keeping things secret from the public?

To: PressThink
From: Linda Picone (worked for the Minneapolis Star Tribune 1974-1995)

As usual, various journalists are “appalled” at the idea that some of their colleagues offer a public demonstration of their beliefs or politics. It’s okay to have beliefs, they say, you just can’t let anyone KNOW you have them. Otherwise we’ll lose our credibility.

And I wonder, for the thousandth time, why anyone can support the idea that journalistic “credibility” rests on keeping things secret from the public. Wouldn’t we be all over any other institution that rationalized keeping information from the public that way?

Remember the city editor in Florida whose husband was running for city office? She was removed from her position—but only because her husband put a lawn sign up in their yard. Now one could make a pretty good argument that it’s hard for a city editor to function if she has to recuse herself from everything dealing with city politics. But that wasn’t why she was moved to another position. It was only the public nature of the lawn sign.

In my semi-perfect world of journalism, we’d have reporters identify their relevant associations and interests with stories. So we might note of the education reporter that “Mary Jones has three children who attend private school.” Or “Bud Budson home schools his children” or “Sam Thomas has no children and likes it that way.”

It might get unwieldy, but at least it would be honest. Would I read an article written by a clear Democrat-leaning reporter differently than one written by a clear Republican-leaning reporter? Probably. And shouldn’t I have the right to know which is which and make that decision myself?


Kerry spoke to Unity’s issues, Bush Did Not.

To: Romenesko Letters
From: Jeff Shaw. (Reprinted with permission. See bio below.)

There will be some strong fingers and palms in America’s newsrooms with all the hand-wringing over Unity. The presence (and lack) of respective applause for the two presidential candidates has caused much consternation among media reporters, columnists and trade publications. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I think criticism of reporters at Unity for applauding at certain moments in speeches is not only overblown, but actually counterproductive.

First, consider that Unity and its attendant groups have specific advocacy: promoting diversity in media as a means for producing excellent journalism. The conference is very up-front about that, as it should be. Any applause came when the candidates addressed Unity’s express mission.

Though the response was warmer for Sen. John Kerry, this was because Kerry consistently spoke in support of these goals, while President George W. Bush mostly chose not to speak on these issues at all. Reporters did not back off from asking John Kerry tough questions; in fact, I think the inquiries made of Kerry were substantially more pointed than those directed towards President Bush. The critical difference involved speech content. Kerry or his handlers had explicitly included material about racial justice, promises to put a Native American in the White House, and pledges to appoint FCC commissioners that back diversity. For whatever reason, Bush or his campaign chose not to address material of vital importance to the conference attendees.

Moreover, the responses to question were telling. Kerry answered queries with specific policy proposals; Bush, asked about the relevance of tribal sovereignty, revealed that he was unsure what the term even meant. This is not the way to endear oneself to the Native American Journalists Association, for example.

Keep in mind, also, that relatively few of these journalists will ever cover the campaign. (Indeed, a major theme of the Unity conference is that journalists of color don’t get those plum assignments in the same proportion that their white counterparts do.) Sure, it would be inappropriate for a reporter covering the campaign to applaud for any reason other than a polite welcome or a polite sendoff — but this just shows why Unity is so necessary. I suspect that most of those applauding were either members of advocacy organizations (like myself) or partisan outlets (such as Democracy Now!), none of which will get near the Bush-Kerry clash.

Let’s be honest about objectivity in journalism. True objectivity doesn’t exist, and appeals to it are often simply appeals to the old order — “objective” means defending the status quo. In this country, that means the perspective of largely white newsrooms is considered unbiased, while the needs of minority communities are underserved. This is one reason diversifying newsrooms is a prerequisite to authentic, accurate journalism. The alternative is a press corps that is both credulous and sterile.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

PressThink exclusive… Ernest Sotomayor, President of UNITY writes a guest column: The President of Unity Says Don’t Blame Us for the “Liberal Media” Charge. (Aug. 10)

Linda Picone, formerly deputy managing editor of the Star Tribune in
Minneapolis, where she worked for 21 years, is a freelance writer and editor.

Jeff Shaw is a freelance writer who has written for as the Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, In These Times, Native Americas and Sierra Magazine, and for other newspapers and magazines. He also serves as North Sound Information Officer for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and attended Unity 2004 as a member of the Native American Journalists Association.

“To Lie by Ommission.” Jeff Jarvis @ Buzzmachine had this response. ” Here is an organization of ethnic journalists that forms to rally around their special interests as ethnic journalists. If they didn’t have special interests — if they didn’t have an agenda — they wouldn’t be coming together. So we should be surprised that they have opinions when Kerry or Bush come to talk?… I think it is unethical to withhold those opinions in public, to act as if you don’t have them, to lie by omission.”

Will Collier at Vodka Pundit tackles the scandal in someone discovering that journalists as individuals gave money—a few hundred bucks—to the candidate of their choice:

“A public demonstration of support for a particular candidate” (July 21)

Full Disclosure (July 19): “It’s a hard-and-fast ethical standard among financial reporters and columnists that they disclose any personal stake they have in companies, funds, or people that they’re covering. Why should news writers be any different? Would the republic collapse if Peter Jennings announced that he wouldn’t vote for George W. Bush even if he were offered a lifetime supply of aged Coulommiers brie? Would Jennings’ viewers really be so mis-served to know in straightforward terms where he’s coming from?”

Perry Parks, who teaches journalism at Michigan State, in comments here at PressThink:

Good journalists — and there are plenty — recognize the difference between citizenship and partisanship. They’re also quite capable of setting aside their myriad personal biases to produce fair and accurate copy, because fairness is their overriding bias….

The reason the best journalists don’t go out of their way to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives is that they’re neither. That doesn’t mean they’re above preferring one candidate or policy position over another; it means they arrive at their positions as individuals and not adherents to an ideological movement. And it means they’re capable of understanding and accurately portraying the other side.

Betraying this professional capacity for political independence by publicly supporting a political candidate is, in fact, inappropriate conduct for a journalist.

Brian Monroe, a Unity board member and Vice President of the National Association of Black Journalists, was at both speeches. In an August 10th letter to Romenesko he writes:

I responded first as a citizen, then as a citizen employed as a journalist. I was not working as a journalist that day, so I felt no obligation to stoically sit there and simply take notes.

…Journalists are also human beings, mothers and fathers, Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Should we maintain an appearance of impartiality when working? Absolutely. Do we need to impose that on the rest of our lives? Perhaps not.

I think it’s been that extreme philosophy of detachment from the real world that has made our journalism so irrelevant to most “regular” people and branded us as disconnected, clueless elites.

Also at Romenesko Letters, Tim Graham of the conservative watchdog group, Media Research Center:

Jay Rosen is right that journalists have every right to express themselves as “citizens.” It’s a free country. But they are then not allowed to fuss and froth about reporters wearing flags on their lapels or putting flags on the TV screen. It’s a little silly to be persnickety about lapel pins and then pull out the whoop-whoop for the cameras when the Democratic nominee speaks.

…They have every right to completely obliterate their appearance of nonpartisanship. We have every right to see these performances and then question the bias of the news product that follows henceforth.

Aug. 10: Unity President Ernest R. Sotomayer writes a column in Newsday about the convention and it does not even mention the controversy over the responses to Kerry and Bush— not a word.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 9, 2004 3:15 PM