By: Allan Wolper
I can still see their cinematic shadows as they huddled in an underground garage. After several tense moments, Deep Throat leaned forward, and whispered to Bob Woodward: “Follow the money.”
It was good advice. Woodward and his Washington Post partner, Carl Bernstein, doggedly pursued a political trail littered with dirty money, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Then Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman portrayed them in a movie called “All the President’s Men.”
Those golden days of 1970s’ Watergate exposés made heroes of reporters. The public could count on them to catch the bad guys, embarrass them in print and on the air — even get them indicted.
Journalism schools filled up with idealistic young men and women hoping to become famous and perhaps bring down a president, or two. Didn’t Woodward and Bernstein — or Woodstein as they were famously known — practically force President Nixon to resign?
But the 1970s also created a cult of personality for journalists. They began to believe they were more important than the people they were writing or reporting about. Their opinions, especially their political opinions, infiltrated their stories.
As the country cabled up, journalists became the kings and queens of talk shows. Print journalists whose work had been confined to their papers found themselves pursued by television and radio producers.
The names of journalists trickled onto the lists of contributors to political campaigns. Journalists were putting their money where their mouths were. They didn’t see any conflict. They said they were using their own money, that their political giving was a private matter. Since their news affiliations were printed next to their names, they claimed they were being transparent.
It is a weak argument, but does the public care? Surveys show most people believe journalists are closet Democrats with the same ethics as car salesmen. They would be shocked to learn the vast majority of working journalists wouldn’t give an old-fashioned plug nickel to a politician.
Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe, believes the only way for a journalist to be transparent is to keep his political checkbook to himself. “It is simply not appropriate for any journalist to make a campaign contribution,” he said.
Until recently, the ethics debate on journalism contributions was confined to the media sections of newspapers, academic conferences, journalism reviews, and public access programs. Hardly the go-to channels of the mainstream.
But that was before Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough’s campaign contributions became an MSNBC-TV political reality show. Olbermann, the manic host of “Countdown,” the cable network’s left-leaning prime-time political program, was suspended “indefinitely” after POLITICO.com reported that he gave $2,400 to each of three Democratic Party candidates after they appeared on his program. MSNBC said Olbermann’s checkbook contributions violated the network’s ethics code, which forbade campaign contributions without specific permission from news executives.
Olbermann’s suspension lasted a total of two days. That’s because approximately 300,000 Olberman-niacs signed a petition demanding that MSNBC let him put on his makeup and go back on the air. Which should tell journalists what the public thinks of their ethics code.
Olbermann, who had criticized FOX News and its various commentators for their political contributions to Republican causes, then messaged this digital embrace to his followers:
“Greetings from Exile: A quick overwhelmed, stunned THANK YOU for support that feels like a global hug and obviously left me tweetless. X.O.”
After he was reinstated Olbermann claimed he wasn’t trying to “keep his contributions secret,” omitting the fact that he did not make them public until POLITICO caught him.
Scarborough, the former Republican Florida congressman who is the co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, was also suspended after POLITICO discovered five campaign contributions to friends and family in his home state. He later admitted to three more.
Scarborough was more mea culpa than Olbermann, apologizing for his failure “to honor the guidelines and conditions of my employment.” He didn’t mention he had an intimate knowledge of those guidelines.
In 2006, when Scarborough was host of “Scarborough Country,” he gave $4,000 to a friend running for Congress in Oregon. Ironically, it was Bill Dedman, an MSNBC.com investigative reporter, who broke that story in a 2007, compelling, online investigation of journalists who contributed to political campaigns. Dedman is a one-time Pulitzer Prize winner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
When POLITICO recently asked MSNBC about that contribution, a spokesman explained Scarborough had asked the network’s permission to make that political gift. The spokesman noted that its political permission loophole followed “important standards,” according to POLITICO.com. A loopy explanation if ever was one.
MSNBC never indicated what it would have done if Olbermann had asked permission to crawl through that ethics-exception loophole.
Dedman headlined his investigation: “Journalists dole out cash to politicians.” He added, “quietly,” in parentheses, to indicate how public those contributions actually were.
In that piece, Dedman also pointed out that Randy Cohen, who writes the syndicated “Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine, had contributed $585 in 2004 to MoveOn.org, a liberal group trying to get rid of then President George W. Bush.
Cohen equated his contribution to donating money to the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Church, an explanation that enraged the editors at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., who had just bought his column.
The paper then ended the column.
“It wasn’t his half-assed apology that pissed me off,” recalled Steven A. Smith, a visiting ethics professor at the University of Idaho, who was then the editor of the paper. “Here was a guy writing about ethics, and he didn’t know the shaky ground he was on. It made his whole column suspect.”
Politicians who cash journalism checks love this kind of debate. It gives them one more chance to publicly complain that journalists are all bought and paid for or in somebody’s pocket.
Allan Wolper is a professor at Rutgers-Newark. He has won more than 50 journalism awards and is the host of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a podcast on WBGO.org, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.