Steering Clear of Conflicts

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 22, 2007

Reporters often look for conflicts of interest when they report on public officials. Likewise, readers deserve to know how The Post deals with conflicts of interest for reporters and editors, especially in this area, where government, politics, special interests and the news media can be in the closest of quarters -- next door or in the bedroom.

The Post's policy on conflicts is stringent, asking staff members to "avoid active involvement in any partisan causes -- politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations -- that could compromise or seem to compromise our ability to report and edit fairly." Conflicts, financial or otherwise, must be reported to superiors. Financial reporters in particular must disclose their investments. Political contributions are forbidden.

A reporter or editor may be recused from covering or editing certain stories. National reporter Walter Pincus was a witness in the Valerie Plame investigation and the Scooter Libby trial, and he can no longer cover the story.

Readers sometimes have complained that family ties are a conflict. While relatives are not subject to Post rules, the policy states, "It should be recognized that their employment or their involvement in causes can at least appear to compromise our integrity. The business and professional ties of traditional family members or other members of your household must be disclosed to department heads."

Executive Editor Len Downie says that Post journalists give up some of their First Amendment right of free speech for the overall good of The Post exercising its First Amendment right of freedom of the press. Downie's wife, Janice, did occasional advance work for Al Gore while Gore was vice president and before her relationship with Downie. She stopped when the relationship became serious.

Some personal perspective: In 1975, when I was city editor of the Minneapolis Star, I married Nick Coleman, the Democratic majority leader in the Minnesota Senate. Now that's a conflict! Our relationship was written about and was no secret. An assistant city editor was appointed to supervise legislative and political coverage and reported to David Nimmer, then managing editor.

My husband, who died in 1981, didn't have a sign on our lawn or a bumper sticker on our cars. When he ran -- unsuccessfully -- for the U.S. Senate, the Star Tribune publisher, a former Republican officeholder, wrote a column to assure readers I would have nothing to do with the coverage. I didn't, and I didn't campaign for him.

When I became executive editor of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, I heard that there was a mayoral candidate's sign on the chief political reporter's lawn. The sign belonged to his wife, and the reporter wasn't covering the mayor's race. While I couldn't order the reporter's wife not to work in the campaign, I believed the sign left a terrible impression, and he removed it.

What readers may not realize is that most journalists would rather slit their throats than do anything that would appear to favor a family member or friend. Reporters don't -- can't afford to -- accept their spouse's perspective as their own. It goes against their DNA. If a reader thinks there is a bias, it is the reporter's own. During campaign season, this column will frequently examine bias.

National security reporter Dana Priest, who co-authored the Walter Reed series and wrote the story on secret CIA prisons, is married to William Goodfellow, executive director of the Center for International Policy, a liberal foreign policy think tank. She doesn't discuss with him even the general drift of stories she is reporting. She said her husband "is the last to know what I'm working on."

When their relationship became serious, Priest had a talk with him about bumper stickers; she didn't want any. He agreed to scrape off a political candidate's sticker, but he didn't agree to be completely muzzled and slapped one on that said "Question Authority." When her car broke down and she had to use his, she was headed for a police officer's funeral and that bumper sticker -- which might be a reporter's motto -- bothered her enough that she parked the car far away.

Editorial writer and columnist Ruth Marcus is married to Federal Trade Commission member Jon Leibowitz, a Democrat. They met when she was a reporter and he was a congressional staffer. "I have my own opinions, but I stay away from anything he's working on," she said.

Media writer and columnist Howard Kurtz has drawn some criticism from bloggers who say his wife, Sheri Annis, is a Republican strategist. Annis said, "I took a marriage vow [in 2003] to no longer be involved in politics, let alone partisan politics."

Before they met, Annis worked on California ballot initiatives and for a free-market think tank, the Pacific Research Institute. She helped pass the after-school programs initiative pushed by Arnold Schwarzenegger before he became governor. She said she never worked in Schwarzenegger's campaigns; nor was she heavily involved with any candidate. She is now "a mom" and does part-time public relations -- nothing political -- through her firm, Fourth Estate Strategies.

In the end, it's not about whom you're married to, what stock you own or what your beliefs are. Those subjects are for editors -- and readers -- to judge and monitor. It's about the integrity of your journalism and your intellect; that is the foundation of the integrity of this newspaper.

As for me, I'm relieved that I'm no longer the editor of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. My stepson, Chris Coleman, is the city's mayor.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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