Journalistic ethics have become an issue in the campaign for Brownsville mayor after the editor and publisher of the local weekly newspaper announced plans to run.
Don Ware, 70, publisher of The Times, said his approach has been to be “more of a community promoter than a community watchdog.”
Ware noted that he previously served on the City Council while an owner of The Times ? although reporting duties were then handled by his late business partner.
If elected, Ware said, he will assign City Council coverage to someone else. But he sees no need to hand over all editorial decision-making about such coverage.
“I figure if I just function ethically as we go along, we’ll be able to work it out,” he said.
Ware said he decided to seek the city’s top office when Rob Wingren chose not to run.
His opponent, Ian Tomlinson, is a 24-year-old Vassar College graduate who decided to enter the race because Ware was unopposed ? and he was concerned about a potential ethics conflict.
“My background in political science led me to feel that him being both the mayor and the editor of the paper was a little bit of a conflict of interest,” Tomlinson said.
In a letter to Ware, Tomlinson wrote: “One thing this town does not need is a lack of ethics in its highest elected office,” referring to the 2004 arrest of Brownsville’s then-mayor Kathleen Swayze involving her husband’s marijuana-growing operation.
Ware published the letter complete with Tomlinson’s charge that an editor-mayor would violate the ethics policies of several national journalism organizations.
Ware also ran a front page story after Tomlinson announced his candidacy.
“Don’s paper has covered me very positively,” Tomlinson said. “But I still think it’s a problem when government and the government watchdog are one and the same.
“To me, it would be an endless opportunity for coverage that was biased, whether consciously or subconsciously. Not only in what you report, but what you chose not to report on. … I do not want a paper that avoids hard news or a mayor who abstains from voting because of a conflict of interest.”
Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for journalism education, said it could pose problems.
“It’s a dilemma, though not an impossible one to solve,” McBride said. “Should (Ware) be elected mayor, he would have to create a system that would isolate him from decision-making about his newsroom’s coverage of City Hall. He would essentially have to deputize someone else to preserve the newspaper’s independence and ability to be a watchdog.”
Ware said he will support Tomlinson, should the public share his misgivings about an editor-mayor.
“He’s a good young man, smart,” Ware said. “He’ll have a steeper learning curve, but he’ll do a good job.”