There are no rules in American journalism. Each publication sets its own standards, and that’s how the Founding Parents wanted it. Some places permit reporters or editors to donate to campaigns; others do not. (The Voice has no policy.) I’ve always regarded my writing as my contribution, a philosophy that has saved me some cash and embarrassment over the years. But it doesn’t affect the way I think. I’d be a godless faggot leftie whether or not I forked over a few bucks to the Girlie Men—i.e., Democrats.
On the Internet, however, every caesura is silence = death. Lately blogland has been aghast at the shock-horror news that some journos have been giving money to candidates. It all began about four months ago, when Michael Petrelis, a militant AIDS activist whose work has sometimes been useful and sometimes not, began poring over records via an info site called tray.com. What he discovered has persuaded a number of media outfits to come clean about their protocols on political donating.
That’s good. The more readers know about the internal operations of the press, the better. Thanks to Petrelis, The New York Times reiterated its no-giving rule and noted that several generous staffers were “highly contrite” when confronted with his findings. But they still have their jobs. The San Francisco Chronicle suspended its letters editor for making contributions in violation of the paper’s policy (i.e., journalists must consult a top editor before they bestow).
Some of Petrelis’s disclosures are surprising. I would have thought PBS staffers donate mostly to Democrats, but Petrelis reports that they give about equally to both parties. Still, what is this revelation really worth? It doesn’t tell us anything about PBS’s political and social bias. That network tilts liberal, not withstanding Tucker Carlson’s new show (a wan attempt to channel William F. Buckley with better hair). I’m not surprised that National Public Radio employees overwhelmingly give to Democrats, but that doesn’t change the fact that NPR favors conservative guests, as demonstrated by a recent Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting study. In other words, you can’t make assumptions about an institution’s politics from the spending of its staff.
“I don’t want publishers saying their reporters can’t make donations,” Petrelis insists. Instead, he thinks newspapers and magazines should state their policies “on their websites and have a page that permanently gives you disclosure information. You can make up your own mind if there was any sort of political bias.” Sounds reasonable—but what would you actually learn from that information? Is a reporter who gives to a candidate incapable of objectivity? Is a journalist who doesn’t give incapable of bias?
The Nation would be the same font of progressive thinking even if its editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, hadn’t donated a lot of money to assorted Democrats, as Petrelis discovered. Nor would New Yorker executive editor Hendrik Hertzberg, another Petrelis target, be less liberal if he weren’t a Kerry donor. (After all, Hertzberg was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter in another life.) So where’s the muck?
When she was editor of the Voice, Karen Durbin called this kind of journalism “dust raking.” It treats any infraction, no matter how minor, as proof of big-time corruption. All readers remember is that someone they didn’t like in the first place has done something wrong. It doesn’t take much to convince most people that the press is a fen of liberal bias, and that may be a perception Petrelis means to reinforce. Most of the journos he’s selected for scrutiny are liberals. Robert Novak, George Will, Cal Thomas, and the aforementioned Tucker C. are all among the prominent conservative writers he has yet to investigate. William F. Buckley has made “tons of donations,” according to Petrelis, but this sleuth has yet to post the evidence. “I was primarily focused on daily newspapers,” he says. That doesn’t account for his obsession with vanden Heuvel and Hertzberg.
It’s not surprising, since Petrelis is an out and proud Naderite. Like his hero, he seems to believe the worst enemy is the one closest to him. Blogland is full of people like that. In the wake of Petrelis’s crusade, davidM at blogspot.com has discovered that an “astonishing 92 percent” of donations from Ivy League academics went to Kerry. Could’ve fooled me.
What next? Easter Parade Reporter Won’t Accept Jesus?
Mad Tab Disease
The Daily News was shocked, shocked, I tell you. “Judge Mental,” fumed its front page of July 20. Next to a pic of the Honorable Robert Sweet ran the subhed, “Cops’ fury at this judge’s nutty ban on anti-terror searches.” That seemed odd, since the Times had reported that both civil libertarians and the police “declared victory” after Judge Sweet’s decision.
The judge’s order will allow the NYPD to use metal barriers at demonstrations planned for the Republican convention, as long as protesters can freely enter and leave the pen. Sweet will also allow searches of protesters’ bags, but only if police receive a specific security threat. This nuanced ruling prompted the News to thunder in an editorial: “Judge Sweet, How Crazy Are You?” The furious “cops” quoted in the main story consisted of Michael Palladino, president of the detectives’ union. Buried in the text was word that the NYPD’s top brass doesn’t share his opinion.
The latest News outburst follows a July 12 front page with a scarehead that could have run in the days of the Palmer raids: “Anarchy Threat to City.” This time, it was Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly himself who fanned the tabby flames. “These hard-core groups are looking to take us on,” Kelly told the News. “They have increased their level of sophistication and violence.” The alleged evidence comes from advisories on the Internet, such as dousing yourself with the scent of gunpowder and entering a subway car. If a police dog “alerts on your scent, do not leave or resist,” wrote one virtual hellion. “You can bet that the train will not be going anywhere for a long time.”
Unnoticed by the News, though not by the New York Civil Liberties Union, is the possible police infiltration of protest groups without “strong evidence of criminal activity.” (The NYPD has “no comment” about that, noted an April 10 Newsday piece.) But the News was more interested in the “Trail of Global Mayhem” leading to Manhattan. The most likely explanation for this deep dander is Post envy—as in out-tabbing the competition. How ironic that New York’s paleo-con paper ran editorials supporting the right of protesters to gather in Central Park. As editor Col Allan puts it, “The Post believes First Amendment rights are more important than green grass.”
As Cindy Adams might put it, even more quaintly, “Only in New York, kids.” Or in this case, only in the New York Daily News.
Research: Matthew Phillp
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 20, 2004