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Political gifts earn Bay Area journalists praise, punishment

Chronicle puts letters editor on leave for nearly $1,000 in contributions

In some Bay Area newsrooms, a journalist who writes a check for a political candidate may get a pat on the back for being an active citizen. In others, the journalist may be reprimanded for creating a perception that the news is biased.

The San Francisco Chronicle put its letters editor on paid leave last week after Grade the News inquired about his political contributions to candidates for local and national offices. Responding to a similar inquiry, the news director at KGO-TV Channel 7 said journalists have an absolute right to express themselves politically, including financially supporting the candidates and causes of their choice.

Maybe it's not objectivity we're aiming for here, but independence. You can't do that if you're giving political contributions.

-- John Diaz, editorial page editor, San Francisco Chronicle

A search of federal, state and local campaign finance databases shows that reporters, editors and publishers in more than a dozen high-profile newsrooms across the region have given money to candidates or registered political groups at all levels of government.

The newsrooms include the Chronicle and its Internet portal SFGate.com, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Examiner, Wall Street Journal(*), San Francisco Magazine, California Lawyer Magazine, Palo Alto Weekly, KRON Channel 4 and ABC affiliate KGO Channel 7 in San Francisco, and KNTV Channel 11 in San Jose. Staff at radio stations KCBS and KNBR also donated to campaigns, as well as a slew of journalists who write for neighborhood, specialized and partisan publications.

Those donations showed up in a survey we conducted of databases listing campaign contributions large enough to require donor identification. The list is not exhaustive; other journalists may have used their spouses' names, or neglected to declare their occupation or employer.

Chronicle editor put on leave

Federal and city records show that the Chronicle's letters editor, William G. Pates, gave $200 to John Kerry's presidential campaign on two separate occasions this year, and has donated hundreds more to three local Democrats as far back as 2000, for a total of nearly $1,000. The Chronicle has a policy prohibiting journalists from giving money to campaigns without consulting top editors.

It's an absolute right for anybody to get involved in what they think is appropriate for them politically.

-- Kevin Keeshan, news director, KGO-TV Channel 7 San Francisco

John Diaz, the paper's editorial page editor, said Mr. Pates had never informed him of his political activity, which Mr. Diaz said if true would create the appearance of a conflict of interest -- an opinion gatekeeper with demonstrated partisan allegiances. That, he said, would compromise the paper's credibility with its readers. "The Chronicle policy is very clear that this would be out of bounds," Mr. Diaz said.

When contacted about the contributions in a voice mail message, Mr. Pates did not return the call. Instead, he forwarded the message to Mr. Diaz, who immediately relieved him of his editing duties while the paper investigates the contributions. The paper is also looking into political gifts by four other staff members, said Robert Rosenthal, the paper's managing editor.

Mr. Diaz said Mr. Pates should have been familiar with the Chronicle's policy, which was clarified in 2002, and was recently reiterated following the suspension of a reporter in another hotly disputed ethics case.

Credibility vs. free speech

One prominent journalism ethicist said the problem is that the perception of a conflict of interest harms a news organization's ability to gather news.

"Two thousand years of ethical philosophy on this topic boil down to this: Do your job and don't cause unjustified harm," said Deni Elliott, the Poynter-Jamison chair in media ethics at University of South Florida. "Being able to do one's job involves a certain amount of professional credibility."

But because newsroom managers interpret credibility differently, she said, "this is an area where reasonable news organizations can disagree."

Disagree they do. Even in newsrooms where policies on political contributions exist, no two are the same. In contrast to the Chronicle's strict approach, other news organizations pointedly do not intrude on what they consider journalists' First Amendment freedom of speech while off duty.

"Anything any employee does is a private matter," said Kevin Keeshan, news director at KGO-TV, where last year Glen Adams, an assignment editor, gave $500 to the campaign of Bill Fazio, who was running for San Francisco district attorney. "It's an absolute right for anybody to get involved in what they think is appropriate for them politically."

As a journalist, you're trained to feel detached from the issues and to be a professional and try and present them in a balanced way.

-- Peter Allen, editor, California Lawyer

Ed Cavagnaro, news director at KCBS-AM, a 24-hour news radio station, echoed those sentiments when informed that journalists working under him had each given to candidates. Records show KCBS editor Frances Stark gave $100 to mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom, and reporter Jerry Wilcox donated $200 to state Senator Don Perata (D-Oakland).

"We don't have any kind of policy against people exercising their constitutional right to contribute money to political campaigns," Mr. Cavagnaro said. "We don't allow any politicking in here, of course, so it's not an issue."

Gimmy Park Li, manager of public affairs programming at KNBR, a station that broadcasts mostly sports but occasionally covers city politics, said there was no rule prohibiting donations at her station, as far as she knew. Last year she gave $200 to Tom Ammiano, who was running for mayor of San Francisco. "I gave these as a private citizen," she said.

Just friends

Some journalists said they are usually uncomfortable donating to politicians but do so for personal reasons, or when they are sure they will never have to cover that person.

Greg Lyon, a reporter at KRON-TV, in 2002 gave $100 to state Senator Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco). "Jackie and I were friends, and are friends, and I had worked with her on a couple of projects independent of Channel 4," Mr. Lyon said. "And so I contributed some money to her campaign. But generally speaking I don't."

KRON reporter Tomas Roman has a long history of political donations. In each case, he said, he cleared it with his managing editor, who made sure he did not cover that candidate. In 1998 Mr. Roman gave $250 to Del Portillo, a candidate for San Francisco's school board. In 1999 he gave Mayor Willie Brown $370 for his re-election. Then in 2002 he gave $250 to Mr. Fazio, the district attorney candidate. That same year he and his wife lent Mr. Newsom a storefront in San Francisco's Mission District, which they estimated at a value of $1,000. During the election season, Mr. Roman said, he never covered Newsom, instead volunteering to report mostly from San Jose.

"I realize that there's a potential appearance of a conflict of interest and I didn't want to have my credibility questioned," he said.

Peter Allen, editor of California Lawyer magazine, gave $150 to Mr. Newsom's opponent, Matt Gonzalez, last year at a house party hosted by a mutual friend.

"If I were covering the election I would feel very uncomfortable about giving," Mr. Allen said. "Just for the appearance of impropriety. As a journalist, you're trained to feel detached from the issues and to be a professional and try and present them in a balanced way."

The $750 quilt

Other journalists argued that it can be hard to distinguish political activity from charity. Joe Rodriguez, a columnist at the Mercury News, said that he dropped his Democratic voter registration in the late 1980s, and has never re-joined the party, in part to maintain his journalistic distance. But he also appears in the Secretary of State's campaign finance database as having given $750 to Planned Parenthood Advocates Mar Monte, a non-profit political group whose slogan is "Working to elect pro-choice candidates." Mr. Rodriguez said he bought a quilt at auction from the organization during a charity dinner.

The letters to the editor were kind of relentless. ... The paper has a respons-ibility to appear fair, even if they're not.

-- Terence Hallinan, former San Francisco district attorney

"I don't write about abortion -- that's not one of my issues," Mr. Rodriguez said. He said he had never considered that gift a violation of the Mercury News' ethics policy, which states rather ambiguously that "Because the newspaper should be perceived as impartial, staff members should avoid outside activities that could conflict with their jobs."

Where does the hand wringing end? he asked. Is it a breach of company ethics to give $20 to the Catholic Church during Sunday Mass?

Stephen Wright, a deputy managing editor of the Mercury News, said that in his view, policy only prohibits donations when journalists might have to cover the object of their charity.

Zero tolerance

Some local newsroom managers say they don't abide any journalist participating in politics.

When told that reporter Linton Johnson, who has since left KNTV, had contributed $100 to the campaign of state Senate candidate Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), Jim Sanders, vice president of news at KNTV, responded that NBC network and station policy forbade it. "Working journalists do not contribute to political campaigns if they work at this station," he stated categorically.

Reporters for television and print elsewhere in the country have come under fire recently for their political donations.

Two weeks ago, reporter Rob Koebel was fired from his job at KNXV in Phoenix after the station learned that he had donated to the campaign of one candidate for sheriff before reporting and airing an expose on his opponent.

Last week, Editor & Publisher Magazine's Web site reported that Elizabeth Stewart, a fashion editor for the New York Times Magazine, gave $1,000 to Mr. Kerry's campaign. The donation would be a violation of the company's highly publicized policy against campaign donations, a company spokeswoman said.

Letters editors, who decide which correspondence should appear on their pages next to the editorials, sometimes go out of their way to assert their independence. Last September, and again in May, Thomas Feyer, letters editor of the New York Times, wrote "To the Reader" columns conveying his "compact" with writers.

"In selecting letters I try to present a fair sampling of reader opinion, as well as a balance of views, pro and con," he wrote. "We welcome opinions from all sides: the majority, the dissenters, the contrarians. While I naturally have to use my judgment, it's not my opinion that determines the complexion of the page, it's yours."

A bitter DA race

At the Chronicle, Mr. Pates with his few small donations waded into one of the most heated political fights in years, the race for San Francisco district attorney.

Records from the San Francisco Ethics Commission show that he gave $200 to the campaign of challenger Kamala Harris after the election, in November and December. There is also a third contribution for $100 in September, before the election, in the name of Walter Pates, who is also listed as "Editor, SF Chronicle." The first name was apparently a misprint.

Mr. Pates is also listed as having given Aaron Peskin $150 for his 2000 run for San Francisco supervisor. In 2001 he gave $100 to Harry Britt for his state Assembly campaign.

The Harris donations are particularly controversial in light of the tensions between the Chronicle and the incumbent district attorney Terence Hallinan. His campaign accused the paper's editors of slanting coverage toward Ms. Harris, whom the paper eventually endorsed.

Mr. Hallinan, who lost the election to Ms. Harris and now has a private law practice, is still bitter. He said he felt the Chronicle used all its ammunition to bring down his candidacy, but conceded that he had no solid evidence of bias on the letters page.

"The letters to the editor were kind of relentless," Mr. Hallinan said. "Any time I saw anything in the letters column, there was something mean in there about me. You can say things in letters that you can't get away with in editorials." He added: "The paper has a responsibility to appear fair, even if they're not."

Opinion staff not exempt

Mr. Diaz, the editorial page editor, said that although there is a strict separation between the editorial functions of journalists in the newsroom and those who work on the editorial page, opinion writers are not exempt from the paper's conflict-of-interest policies.

"Even though we on the editorial page have opinions, we think we are subject to the same standards as every other journalist," he said. "Maybe it's not objectivity we're aiming for here, but independence. You can't do that if you're giving political contributions."

Mr. Pates has worked at the Chronicle as letters editor for decades. His father, Gordon Pates, was managing editor in the 1960s.

The Chronicle has repeatedly encountered ethical dilemmas regarding journalists' supposed conflicts of interest. Last year, personal technology reporter Henry Norr was suspended and later forced out of his beat after he was arrested participating in a protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He sued the paper and later left the paper after agreeing to a settlement.

In March, San Francisco City Hall reporter Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf, who were covering the same-sex marriage story, married each other. After much debate they were reassigned to cover other topics.

There was also concern at the Chronicle that other current and former staffers may have crossed a boundary. Mr. Norr is on record as having given the Green Party of California $1,000 in 2002. Ruth Rosen, an editorial writer who has also since resigned, donated a total of $450 to Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) for re-election to the state Assembly. Kathleen Rhodes, the Chronicle's librarian, has given $535 to the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee since 2000, and $200 to fight Proposition 22 of 2000, which forbade same-sex marriages. Abby Zimberg, a page designer, gave $100 to Susan Leal for her run for mayor in San Francisco last year, records show.

Two people on staff of the paper's Internet site, SFGate.com, may also have broken the rules -- depending on whether they are considered support staff or journalists. Virgil Porter, who edits photographs for the Web site, gave $115 to Matt Gonzalez's mayoral campaign in San Francisco last year. Karen Hata, an electronic editor for SFGate, gave $50 to Jeff Adachi, a candidate for public defender in 2002.

Vlae Kershner, SFGate's news director, said no action will be taken against Mr. Porter and Ms. Hata.

(As a matter of full disclosure, Grade the News project director John McManus contributed $20 to John Kerry's campaign. Because Grade the News is non-partisan and focused exclusively on the news media, he said he does not consider the contribution a conflict of interest.)

Want to see who's giving to whom? Surf over to the Center for Responsive Politics' federal campaign finance database search page: http://www.opensecrets.org/indivs/index.asp. For California campaigns, see the Secretary of State's Web site, http://dbsearch.ss.ca.gov/ContributorSearch.aspx. If you live in San Francisco, go to the Ethics Commission database search page: http://www.sfgov.org/site/ethics_index.asp?id=13729. You can also buy a CD for $1 with records going back to 1998.

 

Some recent political contributions from Bay Area news professionals

Name and title
Year
Recipients
Amt.
San Francisco Chronicle
William Pates, letters editor 2000 Aaron Peskin for SF supervisor $150
"
2001 Harry Britt for Assembly (D-SF) $100
"
2003 Kamala Harris for SF district attorney * $300
"
2004 John Kerry for president $400
Henry Norr, former tech writer 2002 Green Party of California $1,000
Ruth Rosen, former columnist 2001-2002 Loni Hancock for state Assembly (D-Berkeley) $450
Kathleen Rhodes, librarian 2000 No on Prop. 22 $200
"
2000-2003 Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee $535
Abby Zimberg, page designer 2003 Susan Leal for SF mayor $100
 SFGate.com
Virgil Porter, photo editor 2003 Matt Gonzalez for SF mayor $115
Karen Hata, electronic editor 2002 Jeff Adachi for SF public defender $50
 San Jose Mercury News
Joe Rodriguez, columnist 2002 Planned Parenthood Advocates Mar Monte $750
Geralyn Migielicz, photo editor ** 2001 Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee $100
 San Francisco Examiner
Florence Fang, former publisher 2002 PAC to the Future $1,000
"
2003 Cruz Bustamante for governor $5,000
P. Scott McKibben, publisher 2002-2003 George Allen for U.S. Senate (R-Va.) $3,000
 Wall Street Journal
Lisa Bransten, former reporter (*) 2003 Susan Leal for SF mayor $500
 San Francisco Magazine
Steven Dinkelspiel, publisher 2003 Kamala Harris for SF district attorney; Susan Leal for SF mayor; Gavin Newsom for SF mayor $500; $500; $500
 California Lawyer
Peter Allen, editor 2003 Matt Gonzalez for SF mayor $150
 Palo Alto Weekly
Daryl Savage, "Town Talk" columnist 2001 Jack O'Connell for state superintendent of public instruction $100
 KRON Channel 4
Greg Lyon, reporter 2002 Jackie Speier for senate (D-San Francisco) $100
Tomas Roman, reporter 1998 Del Portillo for SF school board $250
"
1999 SF Mayor Willie Brown $370
"
2002 Gavin Newsom for SF mayor $500
"
2002 Bill Fazio for SF district attorney $250
 KGO Channel 7
Glen Adams, assignment editor 2003 Bill Fazio for SF district attorney $500
"
2003 Gavin Newsom for SF mayor $250
 KNTV Channel 11
Linton Johnson, former reporter 2003 Elaine Alquist for state Senate (D-Santa Clara) $100
 KCBS Radio
Jerry Wilcox, reporter 2001-2002 Don Perata for state Senate (D-Oakland) $200
Frances Stark, editor 2003 Gavin Newsom for SF mayor $100
 KNBR Radio
Gimmy Park Li 2003 Tom Ammiano for SF mayor $500
SOURCES: Center for Responsive Politics, California Secretary of State's Office, San Francisco Ethics Commission.
* One donation recorded as "Walter [sic] Pates, Editor, SF Chronicle."
** Mercury News Deputy Managing Editor Stephen Wright said Ms. Migielicz' partner made the contribution recorded in her name.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave the wrong amount for SFGate photo editor Virgil Porter's contribution to the mayoral campaign of Matt Gonzalez. It was $115, not $250.

CLARIFICATION: Although Lisa Bransten (see chart) was identified as a Wall Street Journal reporter in the San Francisco Ethics Commission database, she said she left the paper three months before donating to Susan Leal's mayoral campaign.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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