The story below appeared in a recent issue of Editor & Publisher Magazine, as well as in the Columbia Journalism Review. It is especially relevant given the charges from the Trump campaign of extreme bias toward Hillary Clinton by journalists. Most news organizations have rules that forbid reporters from donating to political candidates of any party. That was certainly the case when I worked 25 years for the Chicago Tribune as a reporter and foreign correspondent. Big things seem to be changing in the 2016 Presidential election. Read on.
By Dave Levinthal and Michael Beckel, Center for Public Integrity
New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, a newly minted Pulitzer Prize winner, spent the Republican National Convention pen-pricking presidential nominee Donald Trump as a misogynist shyster running an “ugly and xenophobic campaign.”
What Nussbaum didn’t disclose in her dispatches: she contributed $250 to Democrat Hillary Clinton in April.
On the nation’s left coast, Les Waldron, an Emmy Award-winning assignment editor at television station KFMB, the CBS affiliate in San Diego, swung right in July, shooting $28 to Trump.
And Carole Simpson, a former ABC “World News Tonight” anchor who in 1992 became the first African-American woman to moderate a presidential debate, is not moderate about her personal politics: the current Emerson College distinguished journalist-in-residence and regular TV news guest has given Clinton $2,800.
Conventional journalistic wisdom holds that reporters and editors are referees on politics’ playing field — bastions of neutrality who mustn’t root for Team Red or Team Blue, either in word or deed.
But during this decidedly unconventional election season, during which “the media” has itself become a prominent storyline, several hundred news professionals have aligned themselves with Clinton or Trump by personally donating money to one or the other.
In all, people identified in federal campaign finance filings as journalists, reporters, news editors or television news anchors — as well as other donors known to be working in journalism — have combined to give more than $396,000 to the presidential campaigns of Clinton and Trump, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis.
Nearly all of that money — more than 96 percent — has benefited Clinton: About 430 people who work in journalism have, through August, combined to give about $382,000 to the Democratic nominee, the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis indicates.
About 50 identifiable journalists have combined to give about $14,000 to Trump. (Talk radio ideologues, paid TV pundits and the like — think former Trump campaign manager-turned-CNN commentator Corey Lewandowski — are not included in the tally.)
Generally, the law obligates federal candidates only to disclose the names of people making contributions of more than $200 during a single election cycle, along with their addresses and employer and occupation. That means it’s likely that many more journalists have given the Clinton or Trump campaigns cash, but in amounts too small to trigger reporting requirements.
Together, these journalist-donors work for news organizations great and small, from The New York Times to sleepy, small-town dailies. While many of them don’t primarily edit or report on political news, some do.
And each news professional offers his or her own unique take on a basic question: Why risk credibility — even one’s livelihood — to help pad a presidential candidate’s campaign account?
Simpson today describes herself as an “academic” and “former journalist.” Therefore, she says she’s “free to do many things I was prohibited from doing as a working journalist,” including giving money to Clinton.
“I have been waiting for the day our country would have a woman president,” Simpson said. “When Hillary decided to run, I was delighted because I couldn’t think of a more qualified woman to seek the high office.”
Waldron, of KFMB in San Diego, describes himself as a “lower case ‘l’ libertarian,” and believes journalists like him who both vote and make small-dollar political donations are within their rights to do so.
Why give money to Trump, a man who Forbes last month estimated is worth $3.7 billion? To fight against Clinton.
“I’m a big, big fan of the United States Constitution,” Waldron said, and Clinton “seems to care very little for the Constitution.”
Said The New Yorker’s Nussbaum: “I rarely write about politics, but it’s true that the RNC-on-TV posts verged on punditry, and I can understand the concern about disclosure.”
Donations often banned
Almost any U.S. citizen or foreign national with a U.S. green card may, by law, give money to a federal political candidate.
But major news organizations often restrict, if not prohibit, their journalists (and occasionally non-journalist employees) from making political campaign contributions.
The news organizations’ overriding concern: Such contributions will compromise journalists’ impartiality or seed the perception that journalists are biased toward certain politicians or political parties.
The New York Times’ ethics handbook declares that its staffers may not give money to, or raise money for, political candidates or election causes. “Any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides,” it reads.
The Associated Press is even more blunt with its journalists, stating that “under no circumstances should they donate money to political organizations or political campaigns.”
CNN spokeswoman Bridget Leininger said the cable network “does not allow editorial staff to contribute to candidates or political parties.”
A review of several dozen newsroom ethics policies indicates many other notable news outlets have similar no-political-donations mandates, including The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, ProPublica, San Antonio Express-News, The Seattle Times and Tampa Bay Times. (The Center for Public Integrity’s staff handbook states that all employees are “prohibited from engaging in political advocacy or donating to political candidates at any level of government.”)
And while some journalists do give politicians money, the vast majority do not.
“Not having that affiliation helps me feel more independent,” said Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist, and a former New York Times public editor and Buffalo News editor and vice president. “I wouldn’t do it, and when I was supervising a newsroom, we had rules against it. It’s a good discipline, I think.”
Although journalists may have a right to give money to political candidates, the act of doing so “easily could be perceived as a conflict of interest,” said Paul Fletcher, editor-in-chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, who recently served as president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
So concerned about bias was former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. that he didn’t even vote.
Strict political contribution policies are not, however, universal among news organizations.
What’s patently prohibited at one news organization may be perfectly permissible at another.
Some outlets also differentiate among newsroom employees: A reporter covering a governmental agency, for example, might be punished for cutting checks to a U.S. Senate or presidential candidate. But the resident arts correspondent or star sports writer? Play ball.
Take Orange County Register restaurant critic Brad Johnson in California, who this year made dozens of small-dollar contributions to Clinton’s campaign that total more than $750.
Digital First Media’s Southern California News Group, of which The Orange County Register is a part, expressly prohibits news reporters from engaging in campaign activities “related to candidates, campaigns or issues which they may cover,” news group Executive Editor Frank Pine said. But while Johnson fits the broad definition of “journalist,” Pine doesn’t consider Johnson a news reporter — and therefore, he’s free to give the Clinton campaign money.
Johnson concurs: “I don’t cover politics. I don’t do investigative reporting. I’m just interested in finding the best pad thai and sharing what I find with our readers.”
Ryne Dittmer covers hard news as the county and education editor of the Liberty Tribune of Liberty, Missouri. He’s contributed $625 to Clinton’s presidential committee.
But Liberty Tribune Managing Editor Amy Neal said Dittmer, who declined to comment, did not violate any newsroom standards.
“We support the individual’s right to align themselves in their personal lives with the political ideologies that they choose, just as we support their right to worship — or not — in the way they choose,” Neal said. “As journalists, we expect accuracy, objectivity and fairness from our staff. Ryne Dittmer’s work certainly reflects those standards.”
Coverage area is Santa Cruz Sentinel city editor Julie Copeland’s rationale for why contributing nearly $300 to Clinton’s campaign is kosher, but campaigns closer to home are not.
“I supervise local news coverage at a small paper in California,” Copeland said. “I do not, and would never, involve myself in any city council, school board or other small municipal race we cover.”
Julie Lane, a reporter at the Shelter Island Reporter on Long Island in New York, has given more than $800 to Clinton’s campaign. Lane says she covers only local political races — nothing presidential — and her “personal ethics would prohibit me from taking an open stand” in any of them.
Then there’s Ellen Ratner, who leads the Talk Media News service and reports on federal government for her company. She also serves as a Fox News commentator. Ratner has given nearly $2,800 to Clinton’s campaign, explaining she contributed the money at the request of a man who made a $100,000 contribution to help her charitable efforts in war-ravaged South Sudan.
“I am happy to help him out … It is well known that I am a ‘wacko, liberal Democrat,’” Ratner said, adding this about her journalistic work: “I will put our news product right down the middle as opposed to just about anyone’s news product.”
Longtime television host Larry King, who now hosts a program on Russian-owned TV network RT and has called Trump “a great friend,” is also a Clinton donor, having given her campaign $2,700 in May. In June, King said he intends vote for Clinton because he disagrees with Trump’s stances on such issues as immigration and abortion.
Several journalists employed by Thomson Reuters, which operates the Reuters news agency, have likewise given Clinton money — and one has given to Trump. That’s fine, said company spokeswoman Abbe Serphos, as “Reuters journalists are permitted to make charitable or political contributions as long as they don’t conflict with their reporting responsibilities.”
Fox Sports spokesman Erik Arneson, responding to questions about three current and former employees who gave Clinton money, said the network “supports employees’ personal involvement in the political process as long as it is compliant with strict federal, state and local laws governing political contributions and interactions with government officials.”
Media executives are also often free from corporate policies restricting political donations, and some prominent news publishers and newsroom leaders routinely make campaign contributions.
Damien Brouillard, the Washington Post’s director of finance and comptroller, for example, is among those helping fund Clinton’s presidential campaign.
So, too, are former New Republic Publisher Chris Hughes, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, Vanity Fair Features Editor Jane Sarkin, Hollywood Reporter Publisher Lynne Segall, Elle Editor-in-Chief Roberta Myers and Lesley Jane Seymour, the former editor-in-chief of More and Marie Clare. Each has given Clinton at least $2,700. Some aren’t shy about it, with Hughes, who also co-founded Facebook, conducting a fundraiser for Clinton last year at his Manhattan home.
Although Trump has often been more accessible to mainstream news reporters than Clinton, his campaign has banned certain news organizations from his rallies, and he has lambasted journalists as “dishonest,” “scum,” “horrible,” “sleazy” and “disgusting and corrupt.” He regularly complains about his coverage by the “crooked media.”
So how do Trump campaign officials feel about journalists and media executives giving money to Clinton?
“Considering that we’re witnessing the single biggest coordinated media attack in political history, it should come as no surprise,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller told the Center for Public Integrity. “If the [Federal Election Commission] viewed their biased hit pieces against Mr. Trump as in-kind contributions, they would have exceeded their maximum allowable gift limits a long time ago.”
Several news reporters or journalism professionals, including Sally York of The Argus-Press of Owosso, Michigan, refused to discuss their political giving in 2016.
York, who covers local affairs and sometimes writes about politicians and government, has made contributions to Clinton’s campaign that add up to $374.
Barbara Bedell, who writes about community news for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York, said she’s a “very private person” and didn’t want to discuss the several contributions she’s made this election cycle to the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign.
And Cristi Hegranes, founder and executive director of the Global Press Institute, a San Francisco-based organization that trains women journalists in developing nations, gave Clinton $227 and also declined to comment.
Rick Hasen, a University of California, Irvine, law and political science professor who edits the Election Law Blog, says journalists shouldn’t abstain from making campaign contributions — big or small — just because they’re journalists.
“That is a choice for each journalist to make,” Hasen said, “and I do not see it as a problem so long as it is adequately disclosed.”
Evidence of bias?
For some journalists, campaign contributions do become problematic.
Ask MSNBC, which in 2010 suspended Keith Olbermann, who at the time hosted a news show on the network, for making contributions to Democratic political candidates.
Last year, Karen Loberg, a photojournalist at the Ventura County Star north of Los Angeles, made a $1,000 contribution to the Clinton campaign in order to attend a private fundraiser in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she was visiting a friend. Loberg said she thought the contribution would “go under the radar,” but she nevertheless defended her right to give it.
“It’s my freedom of speech — what I do on my own time is my business,” Loberg said, adding that her friend later reimbursed her for the $1,000 Clinton donation anyway.
Except such a reimbursement is troublesome: Loberg’s name — not that of her friend, who Loberg declined to identify — appears on federal financial disclosures filed by the Clinton campaign. Such a transaction is informally known as a “straw donation” and is, on its face, illegal: “No person shall make a contribution in the name of another person,” federal law states.
Michael Toner, a former Republican FEC chairman, and Scott Thomas, a former Democratic FEC chairman, both agreed that Loberg and her friend likely broke the law, although it’s unlikely the FEC or U.S. Department of Justice would pursue the matter because of the contribution’s size and scope.
Loberg said she did not know straw donations are illegal. She also said she was, at the time she donated to Clinton’s campaign, unaware that the Ventura County Star frowned on its newsroom employees making political contributions.
John Moore, editor of the Ventura County Star, said Loberg’s donation is a “personnel matter,” and referred questions about Loberg’s donation to parent company Gannett, which declined to comment on what it, too, described as a “personnel matter.”
Gannett’s statement did note that the company asks its journalists to “refrain from any activity that may compromise our goal to maintain journalistic independence,” which includes remaining “free of outside interests, investments or business relationships that may compromise the credibility of our news report” and maintaining “an impartial, arm’s length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news.”
Loberg later expressed regret. “I’m very concerned about losing my job,” she said. (Gannett confirmed she is still employed by the Ventura County Star.)
Buying of the President 2016
Other journalists have this year appeared to violate their news organizations’ political activity policies, including Melia Robinson, a reporter at Business Insider who contributed $541 to Clinton’s campaign.
Business Insider spokesman Mario Ruiz declined to comment on Robinson’s donation but pointed to the online publication’s employee conflict of interest policy, which expressly prohibits several kinds of political activity, including “making any level of financial contribution to a candidate’s campaign for elected office or any political action committee supporting individual candidates for elected office.”
Robinson did not reply to several requests for comment.
Jonah Kessel, a Hong Kong-based staff videographer for The New York Times, gave U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign several hundred dollars earlier this year while Sanders was still running against Clinton in the Democratic primary. For reasons unclear, the Sanders campaign later refunded the donations to Kessel, who did not respond to requests for comment.
“Under newsroom rules, Times journalists should not make political contributions,” New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said, adding, “Jonah’s editors are discussing this issue with him and reminding him of the policy.”
At ESPN, baseball news editor Claire Smith has made numerous small-dollar contributions to Clinton’s campaign that add up to almost $600. Smith, who in a tweet last week described Trump as a “would-be dictator & sexual predator,” did not return requests for comment, and ESPN spokesman Ben Cafardo declined to comment.
But ESPN’s political advocacy policy states that employees such as Smith “must avoid being publicly identified with various sides of political issues” and that the sports network “discourages public participation in matters of political advocacy or controversy among editorial employees.”
Journalists’ political contributions are not, however, always what they appear to be.
Lauren Goode, an editor at tech and culture news outlet The Verge, explained that her $500 contribution in February to the Clinton campaign wasn’t about supporting Clinton’s candidacy — Goode just wanted, for background reporting purposes, to get inside a fundraising event in Silicon Valley at which Clinton was speaking.
“Prior to the event I discussed the particular circumstances of this with the editor-in-chief at The Verge,” Goode explained, “and he approved it.”
Or consider the curious case of another New York Times journalist, Ruth La Ferla.
Federal records show the long-time fashion reporter gave Clinton’s campaign $250 in December.
Except La Ferla says she didn’t make the contribution. No way, no how.
“I don’t involve myself with political campaigns of any sort, not only because I work at the Times but because I am utterly indifferent to their outcome,” La Ferla wrote in an email. “It’s a mystery to me why my name is on that document … It does indeed appear that the Clinton campaign made an error.”
Clinton campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin was equally mystified: “This is the first we are hearing of this discrepancy, and so we are looking into this. If we find that an error or anything improper occurred, we will certainly take the appropriate steps to remedy it.”
The Clinton campaign — or any campaign — has several options for contributions it fears are illegal or otherwise doesn’t want: give the money back, donate the money to charity or disgorge it to the U.S. Treasury, which will add it to the federal government’s general fund
Don’t trust the liberal media?
About 28 percent of journalists say they affiliate with the Democratic Party, 7 percent the Republican Party and 14 percent an “other” party, according to a 2014 study by Indiana University-Bloomington professors Lars Willnat and David H. Weaver.
The rest of journalists — more than 50 percent — say they’re not affiliated with any political party.
Barbara Hough Roda, executive editor of LNP, the largest news organization based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said she wants her reporters to act without favor to any political party and for the public to indeed perceive her newsroom as independent.
But LNP has no formal policy prohibiting journalists from making political contributions, freeing LNP sportswriter Paula Wolf, who did not return a request for comment, to give money to Clinton’s campaign, as she did to the tune of more than $300.
Will LNP consider revising its policy after the 2016 election?
“I believe we will,” Roda said. “My preference would be that we err on the side of caution, so it would probably behoove us to take a look at this again.”
Nussbaum, the New Yorker television critic, has already instituted a new personal policy for making political campaign contributions.
“I’m not planning to contribute money in the future,” she said.
A version of this story was published by the Columbia Journalism Review.