There’s no journalistic conflict of interest in donating to political candidates or causes, says John Cook, the executive editor of Gawker Media. In a memo surfaced by Peter Sterne of Politico Media, Cook advises his colleagues:
Writing about political candidates to whom one has donated money or time is often described, inaccurately, as a “conflict of interest.” It’s really more a confluence of interest—as long as you make no claims to objectivity, there is no reason to believe that the fact of a political donation could somehow compromise the authenticity of the views you are expressing. Both the donation and the writing, one presumes, are different expressions of the same impulse. No one who is writing honestly would be motivated to alter or shade their work because of the fact of a prior political donation.
Accordingly, Cook has ruled that all donations must be declared by Gawker Media personnel in their posts. A fine rule.
At the risk of appearing dinosauric, the Erik Wemple Blog hereby sticks up for the traditional media ban on political donations by reporters. We don’t quarrel with Cook’s position that objectivity is a false and bogus promise leading to all manner of journalistic atrocities — most notably the often straining effort to show that both sides of a political dispute are equally mendacious or reckless or disingenuous. That said, money changes everything. When X Reporter writes out a check to Y Cause, the transaction sprouts a stake in that cause that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Should Y Cause come under attack, X Reporter, by virtue of that donation, will likely be less inclined to criticize Y Cause. Conversely, the donation makes X Reporter more likely to tout the successes of Y Cause; the investment is working!
ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos last year got hammered for his $75,000 in donations to the Clinton Foundation over three years. Typical liberal media, cried detractors. Now, perhaps that money merely represents a “confluence” of interest between Stephanopoulos’s charitable loyalties and his pocketbook decisions. But didn’t his financial commitment intensify those loyalties? Likely. That, in any case, was the conclusion of folks who watched him grill an author critical of the Clinton Foundation before his donations became a public issue.
Another possibility is that Stephanopoulos made the donations to secure a leg up in reporting on the Clinton family, which is in the news a fair bit these days. That Gawker Media types might use money as an access tool doesn’t appear to have occurred to Cook, perhaps because his people may not have tens of thousands of dollars to throw around. Whatever: The discipline of a donation ban is a painless way to ensure that coverage is as fair and flexible as possible.