“This sounds like a hornet’s nest of ethical issues.”
— journalism-ethics expert Bob Steele of The Poynter Institute
Amid the media hype leading up to the dueling rallies held March 1 in downtown Asheville, news of the impending events was hard to escape.
What proved more elusive, however, was information about the roles played in staging these affairs by members of the local media. At least eight media outlets sent reporters to cover the Support Our Soldiers rally and the peace counter-rally, Support Our Soldiers: Bring Them Home. Three of them — the Asheville Citizen-Times, Mountain Xpress and News Radio 570 AM/WWNC — had staff members who played an organizational role in one of the events.
Seeking an outside perspective, I shot off an e-mail to Bob Steele, senior faculty/ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute, a school in St. Petersburg, Fla., for journalists and media leaders. After briefly described my understanding of the parts played by different members of the local media, I asked for an opinion.
“Jeez, Tracy,” Steele wrote back. “This sounds like a hornet’s nest of ethical issues.”
And I hadn’t even told him about my own ethical dilemma. In what might be termed a Freudian omission, I failed to mention that I’d attended part of the Feb. 15 peace rally at Asheville’s Pritchard Park — not as a journalist, but as a citizen. I even walked (for about half a block, on the way back to my car) in the march through downtown. And, further muddying the waters, I took photos of the event that ran in the Feb. 26 Xpress.
Of course, having already read Steele’s Feb. 21 column (posted online at www.poynter.org), I could have guessed what he’d have to say about that. In “When Opposition Becomes Participation,” Steele takes Howard Altman, editor of the alternative newsweekly Philadelphia City Paper, to task for having marched in an anti-war demonstration held in Philly earlier that month.
“Journalists who publicly express their personal views — no matter what their ideological position — put their professionalism and their credibility at great risk,” Steele wrote in his column. “Journalists who publicly oppose or support the war effort, the government or the military move from the balcony to the stage. They become vested participants rather than impartial observers.
“They become the actors. They are no longer legitimate, detached witnesses. They cease to become responsible reporters or credible critics of what takes place on the stage.”
By Steele’s standards, I shouldn’t even be writing this story. But who else is going to tell you this? At least you’ve been forewarned.
It’s not political
In the weeks leading up to the SOS rally, organizers repeatedly said the event would take no position on possible war in Iraq. Still, the political overtones were there from the start.
The idea was born at a January meeting of the grassroots organization Citizens for Change, reports group member Don Yelton, an outspoken Buncombe County resident (see “Spit and polish” elsewhere in this issue). Former Buncombe County GOP Chairman Bill Fishburne, who hosts a conservative talk-radio show on local AM station WISE, attended that meeting — and went on to help organize the rally, promote it on his show, and emcee the event.
The group also approached the Asheville Citizen-Times for help, Executive Editor Robert C. Gabordi told Xpress on March 4.
“We did with them what I think we would do with anyone … any community organization: We opened up our building so they could have meetings here, maybe help with some logistical things, like if they needed copies at the meetings,” Gabordi said, adding that the newspaper’s role didn’t rise to the level of sponsorship.
In his Feb. 9 column announcing the rally, Gabordi didn’t mention that his paper was hosting the organizers’ meetings — though he did say that people interested in participating could contact him and he’d refer them to the right person. (Gabordi did explicitly acknowledge the Citizen-Times’ role in hosting the meetings in his column published March 9 — a week after the rallies.)
Gabordi told Xpress that he’d attended the SOS group’s meetings mainly to advise them on media matters, such as issuing press passes. He gave his own reporters permission to attend the meetings, but they didn’t take him up on the offer, he notes. And though the Citizen-Times was not responsible for the program, Gabordi says he tried to keep the SOS folks focused on their stated mission — and even requested that one of the prayers at the rally be a prayer for peace.
“If it’s a community event and it’s a multipurpose event with no stated political mission, [then] we want to be involved in helping the community. That’s it. But we don’t want to take an active role in deciding what the event should be, unless it’s something that we are truly sponsoring — like our public forums,” Gabordi offers.
Gabordi also has a deeply personal connection to the purpose of the SOS rally. His father was seriously wounded in the Korean War and still bears a scar from his left shoulder to his right hip.
“I’ve been there as a child, as a parent has gone off to war,” Gabordi reveals. “I’ve seen my mother with four children act as a single parent and had the money run short. And it seemed like no one cared what happened to the family.”
Many people today are in a similar position, notes Gabordi, adding that the least people could do is offer some support. “That’s all that this rally was supposed to be about,” he says quietly.
The executive editor concedes, however, that a sign placed front and center on the stage of the outdoor SOS rally — “France Forgot/Forget France” — was “unfortunate” and clearly did express a point of view.
“I don’t know who put it up there or what permissions that they had,” said Gabordi. “I would hope that if someone had taped up a sign there that was saying ‘Support Our Soldiers/Bring Them Home’ that it would have been left up there as well.”
A losing battle?
Cecil Bothwell has been managing editor of Mountain Xpress (and, consequently, my boss) since last fall; he has a lengthier tenure as a local activist. It was in the latter role that he decided to serve as co-organizer, co-emcee and designated spokesperson for the Support Our Soldiers: Bring Them Home counter-rally.
Gabordi’s first column on the SOS rally invited “other media” to participate; Bothwell e-mailed him asking to be allowed on the program. Gabordi responded that he wasn’t in charge of it and later told me he’d forwarded Bothwell’s e-mail to the SOS folks. Bothwell says he never heard back from them.
After the WNC Peace Coalition declined to sponsor the counter-rally, Bothwell and two other members of “Spare Change?” — a local First Amendment-rights group formed in response to the city’s new panhandling ordinance — decided take on the job, to counter what Bothwell saw as the SOS rally’s blatant pro-war slant.
Bothwell says he tried to keep his role at Xpress separate from his work in organizing the rally; at times it seemed a losing battle. Early news stories about the counter-rally didn’t mention his Xpress connection; later ones did. There were also internal hurdles, as Xpress staffers grappled with the logistics of covering an event in which our editor loomed large.
Bothwell was present at two editorial meetings at which the rallies were discussed; other editors filled in at a subsequent meeting to plan our coverage. Bothwell didn’t edit any of our rally stories.
Days before the rallies, I walked the few paces from my office to Bothwell’s to interview him about how his role as rally organizer related to his role as Xpress managing editor.
“First off,” he said, “I’m doing it as a private citizen. But having said that, obviously it’s hard, to the extent that I’m known to be the managing editor of Mountain Xpress. It’s a public role — I can’t duck that. Because the Xpress does not take any sort of editorial stand on national or international events, there’s no direct conflict with my role as editor.
“However, I would also have to point out that everyone has opinions about all sorts of things, and as a reader, I prefer to know where a writer or an editor is coming from. It helps me evaluate whether their reporting is accurate or not. And what an editor believes does shape what an editor does with a newspaper; there’s no question about it. It’s a measure of how professional the editor and the writers are whether they can accurately report a story despite their personal preferences about it. But I really prefer the transparency of knowing where people stand. I think complete neutrality of news reporting is a pose that doesn’t hold much truth.”
After the rallies, Bothwell elaborated on his reasons for helping organize the peace event: “I find the Bush administration to be really frightening, and I think that their efforts to restrict our freedoms need to be countered at every turn. And I think this war is an unconstitutional war that he’s proposing, and I think it needs to be opposed for that reason, too.”
Blurring the boundaries
Meanwhile, other local-media people were attending the SOS meetings — and some ended up lending their support to the event.
Diane Augram, general manager of Clear Channel Asheville, says her company’s handful of local radio stations — including WWNC — helped promote the Support Our Soldiers rally. Clear Channel also arranged for country singer Travis Tritt to sing the national anthem (for free) at the indoor portion of the event.
“We’re not trying to take a stance of whether we’re pro or against the war,” Augram said a few days before the rallies. “It’s simply [to] support our soldiers.”
Both WWNC and its competitor, WISE, decided to broadcast the indoor SOS rally live. WWNC’s news department also covered the rallies — though Augram stressed that the news department is “a whole different beast” from the station’s entertainment arm.
WLOS-TV, however, chose to handle the rallies simply as news stories — including some advance coverage — after a station representative attended one of the SOS meetings, says General Manager Les Vann (who had a long career in television news before getting into management).
The station, says Vann, didn’t provide much promotional support — in part because February is a ratings month (when advertising rates are set based on measured viewer numbers), and the station has no room in its lineup for PSAs.
A question of conscience
Even among local-media people, opinions vary widely over whether such blurring of boundaries colors the coverage of an event.
The day before the rallies, WWNC News Director Bill McClement said he didn’t plan to cover them any differently simply because his station was involved in the SOS event.
“I’ve covered events that are hot-button issues for years, and I go and observe what happens — whatever happens,” commented McClement, a journalist for 26 years. “Both rallies will be of equal interest to me as a journalist.”
In addition, McClement said later, the views of the station’s talk-show hosts have nothing to do with his news coverage.
In other markets, national radio talk-show host Glenn Beck — whose show is syndicated through a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications — has urged his affiliate stations to rally behind President Bush and the war effort, according to Florida Today newspaper. With the help of local radio stations, “Rally for America” events took place recently in Cleveland, Houston, and Melbourne, Fla.; more are scheduled in Georgia and South Carolina, according to news reports.
Gabordi noted that other Citizen-Times editors had directed that paper’s coverage of the rallies; his only role, he said, was insisting that the coverage be scrupulously evenhanded and fair. The “vast majority” of feedback has been positive, he reports, though he acknowledges that the newspaper has drawn criticism from supporters of both rallies — adding that he thinks they’re being picky. (Perhaps this is picky, but it took WCQS journalist Adam McMullin — whose station was completely uninvolved in the rallies — to report on the “France Forgot/Forget France” sign on the SOS rally stage.)
“The proof is in the coverage,” Gabordi insists. “We worked real hard at presenting balanced coverage.”
Xpress Publisher Jeff Fobes, however, feels such situations inevitably affect reporters. At worst, their coverage will become “horribly distorted”; at best, they’ll waste time worrying about whether that’s happening, says Fobes. (For my part, I raised the issue at Xpress only after an editor assured me my own job wouldn’t be in jeopardy.)
And Poynter Institute ethics guru Bob Steele voiced deep misgivings about the independence news organizations sacrifice when their staffers become part of the events they cover.
“The most important contribution an editor can make to his community is to provide independent, substantive coverage on these important events and issues,” asserted Steele.
Speaking primarily of Gabordi’s role, Steele said: “I think it’s inevitable, given the complexity and contention around these issues, that some members of your community will perceive the editor’s role as an activist position on behalf of a particular cause and a cause that has some ideological tentacles. … That, to me, is very risky journalistically, because it brings into question his independence and that of the newspaper in covering the multiple dimensions of this story.”
But Steele didn’t let Xpress off easy, either, calling it “very problematic” for Bothwell to play such an activist role because of the potential for creating “competing loyalties.”
“That conflict between loyalties,” said Steele, “allows readers of the newspaper — be it mainstream or alternative — to question the quality, the fairness and the authenticity of the coverage. I think that’s very risky and counterproductive to the purpose of journalism.”
For his part, Fobes notes that Xpress has no written policy on editors or other staffers taking part in political events — yet he’s learned over the years that activism and journalism make “difficult bedfellows.”
At the same time, he notes, Xpress grew out of the alternative monthly Green Line, which began as an activist publication, adding: “So we have a great deal of respect for democracy emerging from grassroots activism.”
Over the years, however, Fobes says he’s tried to separate journalism from activism, and Xpress reporters aren’t allowed to cover subjects they’re actively involved in. In a recent meeting, notes Fobes, Xpress editors agreed that the paper doesn’t want to face this kind of journalistic quagmire again. But they also affirmed their respect for the principle of acting according to one’s conscience.
“Given that respect, we’re aware that it could come up again — that reporters or editors may find themselves in situations where their conscience demands action,” muses Fobes. “So in these circumstances, we’ll have to address them individually.”
“The thing that I feel really good about,” he concludes, “is the scrutiny that this article puts on the issue, and the light that it shines on it for our readers.”