By: DAVID NOACK
Can a newspaper objectively cover a highly controversial political initiative
to which it has donated so much money and from which it might financially benefit?
Has its own $60,000 corporate contribution to a campaign seeking to split the San Fernando Valley from Los Angeles compromised the Los Angeles Daily News’ ability to cover that highly controversial local story?
That question was being asked by journalism ethics authorities and News employees alike last week after details of the newspaper’s extraordinary donation became an issue of intense public debate.
News corporate executives gave the $60,000 to Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment or VOTE, a group working to collect 135,000 signatures by Aug. 27 to set the first legal phase of a secession effort in motion.
Currently a northwestern appendage of the city of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley is a 250- square-mile collection of affluent suburban neighborhoods. Some 47% of its 1.5 million residents hold managerial or professional jobs. If separated, it would constitute the 6th largest city in the U.S., larger than San Diego, Detroit or Dallas.
The News is headquartered in Woodland Hills, within the valley area which VOTE is seeking to sever from Los Angeles.
Financial Benefits of Secession
An Aug. 17 story in the New York Times notes that the News would benefit from the secession because it would be in line to become the newspaper of record for the new city. The newspaper of record would be eligible to receive all the municipality’s legal advertising.
The paper’s first admission of its contribution to VOTE was given low-key mention in the fifth paragraph of an Aug. 7 story about VOTE’s latest activities. Less than 24 hours later, the Los Angeles Times ran a major story about the News’ involvement on the front page of its Valley section.
Secession a Hot Political Topic
Valley secession is a hot political topic, with the two major daily newspapers serving that area, the News and the Los Angeles Times, taking opposing sides on the issue.
One of the leaders of VOTE even called on the Times to match the News’ financial contribution to the group. The Times declined.
Media ethics observers say the contribution places the News in the awkward role of covering a major political issue in which it has a corporate financial stake.
The publisher and top editors of Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group-owned newspaper have been placed on the defensive, explaining to the newsroom staff and readers the decision to make the financial contribution, which constitutes one-third of the $200,000 VOTE has collected.
Newspaper executives have been reluctant to discuss the contribution. Publisher Ike Massey did not return E&P’s phone calls seeking comment.
But in an Aug. 14 “Message from the publisher” column on the News editorial page, Massey explained to readers: “I approved the expenditure because local residents and local institutions ? including the valley’s newspaper ? have a responsibility to step up with the financial support necessary on an issue that is so important. But as a newspaper as well as a business, the News, by making this contribution, raised ethical questions for some.
“Our journalists are professionals,” Massey continued in his column. “I expect them to continue to cover this issue and all others objectively, fairly, aggressively and thoroughly, and I know they will. I would never ask that coverage be slanted on any topic and I know our reporters and editors would not do so.”
Contribution Called Improper
Marshall Loeb, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, said it’s improper for a newspaper to contribute money to a political cause, candidate or campaign.
“I think there is a great distinction between making a comment on the editorial page and actually making a contribution. . . . I think that when you make a comment on the editorial page, the readers assume that what you have in mind is the greater good of the community or even the country,” said Loeb, who added that one dollar would be too much.
By making the contribution, the newspaper has declared it has a vested interest in the outcome, he said.
Paul Husselbee, an assistant professor of
journalism at Lamar University in Beaumont,
Texas, said he’s troubled by the size of the contribution and the manner in which
the paper handled public
disclosure of the contribution.
“It’s hard to believe that a handsome donation to this petition drive and staunch, sustained editorial support for the idea were independent developments. Once the News brain trust made the decision to donate to this cause and to support it editorially, the newspaper had a duty to disclose the donation to its readers,” said Husselbee.
David McNary, a business writer who heads the Newspaper Guild local at
the News, said staffers are disappointed by the contribution.
He said at a meeting called last week to discuss the issue, staffers were not satisfied, and many questions were left unanswered, such as whether the paper would make any more contributions to the group and how the $60,000 figure was determined.
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http://www.mediainfo. com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 22,1998) [Caption]