News, politics: an uneasy union
Some of America’s most prominent political journalists are, quite literally, wedded to the 2008 presidential race: Their spouses work for one of the candidates.
Relationships that cross the media-political divide raise ethical questions for the journalists and their employers. Should the potential conflict of interest merely be disclosed to readers or viewers? Or should the journalists be shifted to new assignments to lessen the appearance their motives might be divided?
Heading into the presidential election year, the answers to those questions have been markedly different for at least four journalists:
* Los Angeles Times political reporter Ronald Brownstein recently began a new assignment as a columnist for the newspaper’s opinion and editorial pages after his bosses banned him from writing news stories about the presidential race. The Times was seeking to avoid the appearance of a conflict: Brownstein is married to Eileen McMenamin, chief spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain, a candidate for the Republican nomination.
* Matthew Cooper, the former Time magazine correspondent who was a witness in the recent trial of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, says he hasn’t figured out exactly how to cope with the fact that his wife, Mandy Grunwald, is a chief ad strategist in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. Now Washington editor for Portfolio magazine, Cooper said he expects to write about Clinton and “to acknowledge my wife works for Hillary
* Nina Easton, Fortune magazine Washington bureau chief and Fox News analyst, said she would not write stories centering on McCain’s campaign, because her husband, Russ Schriefer, is plotting media strategy for McCain. When appearing on Fox, she said, she plans at least occasional disclaimers to tell TV viewers she is married to a McCain advisor.
* NBC’s Campbell Brown will continue to cover politics after her husband rejected overtures to join the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate. Dan Senor, a former White House aide and once top spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, opted to start a private firm, partly so his wife would not face a conflict.
Journalism critics say the public’s skepticism toward the media has been heightened by recent events, particularly the Libby trial, which revealed a cozy relationship between Washington journalists and their sources.
“I think at the minimum you should state the relationship in each report, and then think about recusing yourself entirely,” said Joseph Tuman, a professor of political communication at San Francisco State University who has himself disclosed potential conflicts as a television commentator.
Tom Rosenstiel, a former Washington correspondent for Newsweek magazine and The Times, said that in many cases, disclosure was not enough.
“You have the right to marry anyone you want, but you don’t have the right to cover any beat you want,” said Rosenstiel, now director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Though they agreed that they needed to address the doubts of a skeptical public, the media-political couples said they got little, if any, professional benefit from their marriages. All said they were careful not to share trade secrets.
“There is a lot of stuff she doesn’t tell me and a lot of stuff that I don’t tell her,” Cooper said of Grunwald, the Clinton advisor.
Easton of Fortune and Fox News agreed, saying that journalists and their spouses zealously protected their reputations. “We all understand there are things we just can’t share,” said Easton, a former Times and Boston Globe journalist. Schriefer “has clients, and he is responsible to them. And I am responsible to readers and viewers and to my editors and producers. We both understand that.”
Schriefer said the couple simply would rather talk about topics other than politics, such as “the kids, our next vacation or what movie we want to see.” He said they couldn’t really worry about “people who believe in conspiracy theories. They can always find something to complain about.”
Still, Easton agreed in an interview that public disclosure of potential conflicts was important. After speaking to The Times, she made her first on-air comment about her husband’s job.
“In full disclosure, my husband works for the McCain campaign,” she said on the “Fox News Sunday” round table, “so take what I say with a grain of salt.”
Official Washington is a small world, where elected officials, political operatives, lobbyists and journalists fraternize and sometimes become intimate.
Among the pairings that once spanned the media-government boundary: NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan; and former New York Times correspondent Todd Purdum and Dee Dee Myers, previously chief spokeswoman for President Clinton. Brownstein and Easton were once married to each other, and the current spouse of each is now a McCain operative.
The journalists all answered questions, if sometimes unenthusiastically, about the collision of their personal and political lives.
Perhaps that’s because the attention the unions draw is unlikely to be positive. In May 2005, for example, a blogger wrote that Brownstein’s marriage to the McCain aide created an “obvious conflict of interest.”
A couple of weeks later, Brownstein acknowledged the marriage at the bottom of his regular Washington Outlook column and added: “I am confident that her new job will not affect my judgments, pro and con, about McCain and his initiatives.”
But Times editors decided that mere disclosure would not be enough come the 2008 race, in which McCain is expected to be a prime contender. Then-Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Douglas Frantz decided they would take a stronger stand -- prohibiting Brownstein from covering the 2008 presidential race.
Frantz said in an interview that he was sure Brownstein could “set aside his personal situation and write fairly.... But the appearance of a conflict was too stark to consider any sort of role for him in covering the presidential race.”
The ban did not draw much public attention because Brownstein -- a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist -- was on leave writing a book.
When he returned, the veteran commentator, who also appears on CNN, had hoped to at least write about the Democratic contenders. “I saw the concern they had,” the reporter said of his bosses, “but it seemed to me to be a very high standard that they were setting.”
Brownstein said he adjusted to the idea of focusing on Congress and President Bush -- and sitting on the sidelines after covering six straight presidential elections. But his role in news coverage became moot late last month, when Times Publisher David Hiller announced that Brownstein would write a weekly political column and other pieces for the paper’s op-ed operation.
Andres Martinez, editor of The Times’ opinion pages, said in a statement that he was “thrilled” to have Brownstein on his staff. But he added in an interview that the reassignment did not completely extinguish the conflict issue.
Martinez plans to have other writers take on the bulk of commentary focused on McCain. Brownstein will be able to write columns in which the senator is less central, Martinez said. In those cases, he said, “we will err on the side of full disclosure” of Brownstein’s marriage.
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