By: Todd Shields
E&P Exclusive: Contributions Are Lilliputian
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by Todd Shields
Newspapers often ask their workers to avoid partisan politics to ward
off any suggestion of biased coverage. The devotion to impartiality
can be thorough. Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.
famously refuses even to vote, lest he be forced to make a political
Of course, not everyone in the industry is so studiously neutral. In
fact, newspaper workers have donated more than $130,000 to federal
campaigns in the current election cycle, according to public campaign
records. Donors from the industry favor Republicans, especially in
presidential politics where GOP candidates received $2 for every $1
given to Democrats.
The totals involved are minuscule compared with the millions of dollars
mobilized by other industries. For instance, the fast-evolving
communications and electronics industry has donated more than $2 million
to each major party candidate, according to the Washington-based Center
for Responsive Politics.
Giving by newspaper employees is Lilliputian by comparison. An E&P
analysis finds the Tribune Co., with $27,625 in contributions by those
on its payroll, to be the heaviest donor among the 17 companies that
comprise the E&P Stock Index. Only three other companies in the index
– Dow Jones & Co. Inc., Gannett Co. Inc., and Pulitzer Inc. – mustered
more than $15,000 in contributions. In each of these three cases, one
individual accounted for the bulk of the donations.
Findings from an E&P examination of federal campaign finance records
o Gannett’s senior vice president for public affairs and governmental
relations, Millicent Feller, is among the most active political donors
among newspaper industry figures. E&P identified $12,000 in 16 separate
donations from Feller during the current election cycle. Roughly half
went to Democrats and half to Republicans – although, among presidential candidates, the only recipients were Republicans George W. Bush and John
A Gannett spokeswoman said the donations were the result of private
decisions by Feller, who works for a corporate structure that oversees
broadcast and printing interests as well as newspapers that include
circulation giant USA Today. In other election cycles through the 1990s,
Feller, a former aide to U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I., donated
$40,495, including $20,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign
o Michael E. Pulitzer, chairman of Pulitzer, which publishes the St.
Louis Post-Dispatch and other newspapers, donated $18,500 to Democratic organizations in Missouri. Pulitzer representatives did not return
telephone calls for comment.
Safir Ahmed, who edits the weekly Riverfront Times in St. Louis, said
the Post-Dispatch appears to show no pro-Democrat bias beyond what could
be expected based upon its long reputation as standing to the ideological
left of the defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
o The Wall Street Journal’s Melanie M. Kirkpatrick, the assistant editor
of the editorial page who recently related to readers the Trollope
Society’s dim view of ‘Her Grace Hillary Clinton,” donated $15,000 to
the Republican National Committee. Kirkpatrick was one of three editorial employees among five Dow Jones workers who donated a total of $20,000.
Those three ‘made a mistake and won’t do it again,” said Dow Jones
spokesman Richard Tofel.
o Not even The Washington Post is immune to political giving. Katharine
Graham, chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Co.’s
board of directors, donated $6,000 to the Women’s Campaign Fund Inc.
Post spokesman Chip Knight said Graham, who is essentially retired, saw
no reason not to donate to the Women’s Campaign Fund because it is
bipartisan. Federal records show the fund, which assists women candidates,
has recently contributed to 42 Democrats and 11 Republicans.
Several industry observers said partisan giving might undermine public
confidence in journalistic integrity – something that already is under
question. In one recent survey, 69% of Americans agreed that news coverage contains at least a fair amount of political bias, according to the Pew
Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington.
Making partisan political contributions ”smells bad,” said Louis Hodges,
the Knight professor of ethics in journalism at Washington and Lee
University in Lexington, Va. ‘Journalists need to have a singular loyalty
to the interests of readers. It is a conflict of interest on the face of
Newspaper companies offered varied responses to queries by E&P about
their employees’ giving. In some cases, donors or representatives
declined detailed comment. Others said employees removed from the news
are free to make contributions. Still others said donations represent
the private exercise of employees’ free-speech rights.
Although business executives may remain uninvolved with news judgments, organizations should closely examine whether donations are wise, said
Aly Colon, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, based in St.
Petersburg, Fla. Even if the companies say there is a separation between
the publishers’ suite and the editors’ conference room, ‘the public
doesn’t always buy that,” Colon said.
In preparing this article, E&P searched public records compiled by the
Federal Election Commission and posted on FECInfo, a nonpartisan Web
site devoted to public disclosure of political fund raising. The search
covered donations of $200 or more, since the beginning of 1999, to
federal campaigns, including presidential and congressional candidates
as well as political action committees.
Donors to federal campaigns fill out forms that ask about their
employers or occupations. The E&P search focused on those who listed a newspaper-owning company as his or her employer, as well as those who
work for the trade group, the Newspaper Association of America (its
employees gave a total of $3,750 recently).
In some cases, donors identified by E&P include executives with company
units that have only ancillary connections to newspapering. For instance,
many of those who list Tribune Co. as their employer work for broadcast
concerns, said Shaun Sheehan, a Tribune vice president. At Belo, which
owns broadcast concerns as well as The Dallas Morning News, all
contributions identified by E&P came from Michael J. McCarthy, a
corporation executive without direct oversight of news operations.
Todd Shields (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Washington editor
(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher