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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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January 30, 2008 8:39 AM

Times journalists discouraged from any role in caucus or primary

Posted by David Postman

About 40 Seattle Times editors and newsroom staffers met yesterday to discuss whether journalists should participate in Washington’s presidential nominating process. Management says people involved in political news should not participate at all and others are strongly discouraged from doing so and told to inform their supervisor if they plan to take part in either the Feb. 9 caucus or Feb. 19 primary.

Executive Editor David Boardman has posted a note about the subject on the Times internal Web site. Management's position relies on the Times Code of Ethics section on political activity, which begins with this:

Our profession demands impartiality as well as the appearance of impartiality. Public political activity puts that at risk, and is discouraged.

It also says:

Staff members should avoid active involvement in any partisan causes that compromise the reader’s trust in the newspaper’s ability to report and edit fairly. Public political activities that may raise concerns include contributing money, signing petitions, wearing political buttons, displaying bumper stickers, publicly espousing a cause, or participating in demonstrations.

The problem Boardman sees with the caucus and primary is that a journalist's involvement would necessarily make their political views known. Caucus lists aren’t public, but the party will know who signed in and obviously everybody in attendance will know which candidate a caucus participant backs.

The primary voters list is a public record and without an unaffiliated ballot to choose from, voters have to choose a Democratic or Republican ballot and sign an “oath of fidelity” to the party. Boardman wrote "someone could look up whether a particular voter participated in the Democratic or the Republican primary."

Count on The Stranger, the Weekly and the political blogs to do just that.

In this age of sharply partisan talk shows and blogs, our credibility and impartiality are more precious than ever. They are the capital we have to carry us into the future, the qualities that most separate us from all of the other places readers and Web users can go for news and information. Anything any of us does to erode those qualities comes at great cost.

Boardman says he knows that this deals with “that most fundamental of citizen rights.”

But the tradeoff is the privilege of being a journalist who reports on and interprets our community, our country and the world for our fellow citizens. That is a power and a responsibility beyond the caucus room or even the voting booth, and one we must all treat with the greatest respect.

I vote in all elections except for the presidential primary. I have not wanted to put my name on a list that identifies any party preference. And I would never participate in a caucus given that that is a party operation and not a public vote.

But I’m a political reporter and cover the parties and the candidates. Should the same rules apply to everyone in the newsroom? The Times is making a distinction. People involved in political coverage are prohibited from participating, others are told, “we would rather you didn’t participate.” Boardman wrote:

These days, politics permeates all sections of the newspaper.

This issue could get more complicated for journalists. In Washington the political parties want to get lists of party preference of voters in the state primary. So far that hasn’t happened. But it could. At that point the Times policy would have broader implications.

The Times is not alone in wrestling with this issue. Denver Post editor Greg Moore recently sent a memo to his employees about Colorado’s Super Tuesday caucuses.

While attending a caucus could raise questions about your impartiality as a journalist, I realize it is a right to participate in our democratic process.

So, with certain exceptions, we will not prohibit folks from attending the caucuses.

Honestly, I would prefer you didn't.

He also specifies those employees who would be prohibited from participating.

Barred from even participating in caucuses are all city, suburban, state and national political reporters and editors; those covering political races; the metro, business and TV columnists; anyone who leads a department or oversees a section; the team leaders and writers for the anchor team; all members of the breaking news team and online operations and all editors at the ME level and above.

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Posted by el ganador

10:19 AM, Jan 30, 2008

That is ridiculous. Are we readers so stupid that we think you can't report and have an opinion at the same time?

Frankly, no job is worth being disenfranchised.

Posted by You're not alone

10:26 AM, Jan 30, 2008

Non-partisan staff at the legislature face similar restrictions. Federal judges and, to a lesser extent, state judges also are limited in this regard.

Most of the above are barred from displaying partisan yard signs or bumper stickers.

Posted by Byron

11:23 AM, Jan 30, 2008

That's a shame....these are among the best-informed people, were they to make their opinions known it would only be good for their fellow voters and caucus-goers.

Posted by Tyra

12:12 PM, Jan 30, 2008

Help us out here, David. didn't a reporter for the News Tribune get into trouble over some political involvement thing a few years ago, she was then reprimanded or disciplined or fired or something, and then sued the paper and won in court? Am I remembering this wrong? Isn't there a first amendment issue here?

Posted by Will in Seattle

12:14 PM, Jan 30, 2008

So they can't vote?

Who died and made you King?

People like me served so they could vote.

This is just ... wrong.

Posted by Blue Shirt Media

12:37 PM, Jan 30, 2008

We all know reporters, editors, owners, and the people who answer phones at the front desk... all have an opinion. No one exists in a vacuum. For God's sake, participate. However, they are hoping to not have the ratings drop (or its equal) that Dave Ross had once he ran as a DEM. It happened, so I guess there's some legitimate concern. Unfortunately, that is just a reality of the horrible division in this country that one candidate is trying to move beyond.

We should judge each other based on the quality of our work.

We should all participate.

Posted by private24

12:58 PM, Jan 30, 2008

What a farce! Nobody thinks the Seattle Times, or anyone who writes for it, is "objective." After all, this is the same newspaper that kept Bob Twiss on for years after he was busted for putting his byline on a Boeing press release. All we ask is that the reporting and editing fairly represent what happened. Participating in a party caucus hardly compromises that.

If reporters and editors at the Seattle Times are so gutless as to knuckle under to this intimidation, to give up your rights as American citizens just because some dog-shooting little sociopath signs your paychecks, why would we think you had the integrity to report ANYTHING fairly?

Management and ownership continue to delude themselves that this stupid policy helps the company. It does not. It makes the ownership and management even greater objects of ridicule than they already are. It only accelerates the inexorable, and well-deserved, death spiral of a once decent organization.

All the "good little Germans" in the newsroom who "go along to get along" are just cutting the throats of their own credibility and their own careers.

Posted by Nay

1:09 PM, Jan 30, 2008

If ever there was a reason never to associate with the P-I this is it.

Posted by Nay

1:11 PM, Jan 30, 2008

Times. I meant the Times. *sigh*

Posted by dlk

1:25 PM, Jan 30, 2008

This is kind of funny. Some reporters are always suspect--for good reason and others without good reason. Since the media faces a credibility gap, often writing "news" stories that sound more like political proselytizing than news, it's probably not a good idea to add fuel to the fire.

Posted by BlueCat

1:46 PM, Jan 30, 2008

THIS is wrong! You DO NOT give up your rights as a citizen for a job! These people all have the right to vote and NO employer should think he has the power to strip it away.

The newspaper and city needs to back off.

Posted by Danny Westneat

2:13 PM, Jan 30, 2008

Calm down, everyone. The paper never said we couldn't vote. It just said that if you do participate in a caucus -- for which you have to sign up for that political party, in effect joining the organization -- then you can't cover politics. We don't let our environmental reporters join Greenpeace or the American Forestry Association, either. This is a good thing. BTW, this is why I support the old open primary system we used to have where the parties didn't force you to enlist before you vote.

Posted by Piper Scott

3:42 PM, Jan 30, 2008

Gen. George S. Patton never voted. Believing strongly in civilian authority over the military, he thought it improper for a serving officer to participate in the selection of his superiors. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

The Seattle Times is a private employer, and, interesting point this, it's employees don't have "First Amendment rights" as the term is commonly understood; none of us do if we work for another.

While the overwhelming majority of private employers aren't going to ask whether you're a Romney, Obama, or uncommitted caucus attende, on the rare occassion when that compromises your employment, or could even appear to compromise it, then an employer can ask you to not participate.

You have to make a choice: Go to the caucus or write about politics for The Times. You don't get everything in life.

It's interesting that Postman makes no mention of any Times' employees going on the warpath over this, or any grievance filed by the union. I'm going to suspect that most affected employees probably already came to the conclusion management announced via its memos.

If you wish to die upon a cross, best make it of sturdier stuff than old newspapers.

The Piper

Posted by Read Between the Lines

9:13 PM, Jan 30, 2008

Check the agenda, my union rep warned me that when, or should I say “if” I cast a republican primary ballot, that becomes record and I will start political fundraising calls from republicans. This is not to say that the union officially encourages casting the only ballot that counts, messing with the republican results, but imagine the bad press if left testifying reporters were caught poisoning the pond!

Posted by JimD

10:41 PM, Jan 30, 2008

Gosh, I'm agreeing with The Piper.
Political REPORTERS (not editorialists, but REPORTERS) shouldn't be working for a campaign, anymore than health inspectors should work for restaurants.

Posted by Postman

7:32 AM, Jan 31, 2008

You're not alone, I heard recently that non-partisan legislative staff couldn't partiicipate. But I checked that out and what I was told was there never has been a directive not to participate in the caucus or primary. But when the staff are hired they are told that if they participate in partisan activities that it could become difficult for them to protect their jobs is a legislator feels they are not non-partisan enough.

Danny, you mention the old primary. As I wrote in the post this could become a bigger deal if the parites are successful in thier efforts to get the voter lists from the regular state primary. Then we would be faced with the prospect of not voting at all in any primary, for legislature, county council, governor, etc. The U.S. supreme Court has said the primaries are a party functions, though, so if that's true maybe we shouldn't be involved.

Tyra, you remember correctly. There was a staffer involved in a local ballot measure campaign and the paper said that posed a conflict. My recollection is that the state Supreme Court said the paper had that right.

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