By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Carole Simpson and J-school ethics

Among the rules that every journalist should have drilled into her or his head from a young age is this one: You don’t get involved in politics. That is, you don’t give money to politicians, you don’t work on their campaigns, you don’t run for office yourself, and you are very careful about what sorts of organizations and causes you participate in. (Not that everyone follows these rules.)

But what are the rules for journalism professors? Are they the same as those for journalists? Should they be?

A year and a half ago, toward the end of my first year as a full-time instructor and part-time journalist, I did something I had never done before — I told a candidate for the local board of selectmen that we’d like to have a lawn sign. He was a good candidate, and we displayed it proudly. (He won, too.) But about a week later, the editor of the local weekly asked if I would moderate a candidates’ debate. I had to say no, and I resolved to scale back my newfound zeal for political activism.

Which brings me to the situation involving Carole Simpson, a former ABC News anchor and reporter who’s now teaching journalism at Emerson College. Yesterday the Boston Globe’s Peter Schworm reported that Simpson has been taking some heat for publicly endorsing presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a New Hampshire rally to which she had brought her students. Earlier, the endorsement was the subject of an article by Ashley Portero in the Berkeley Beacon, Emerson’s student newspaper.

Simpson was apparently aghast at what she had done almost as soon as the words came tumbling out of her mouth. She offered to resign — an offer that was not accepted. But her colleague Jerry Lanson, a former editor at the San Jose Mercury News, told both the Beacon and the Globe that he found Simpson’s actions to be inappropriate. “As faculty members if we’re teaching journalists, we need to model the behavior we’re teaching in the classroom,” Lanson was quoted as saying in the Globe.

Interestingly, though, Lanson himself recently stepped up to the same line that Simpson arguably crossed, taking part in an antiwar demonstration on the Boston Common. Afterwards, Lanson wrote a commentary for the Christian Science Monitor in which he took the media to task for giving antiwar rallies across the country scant attention. He said:

[I]t seems remarkable to me that in some of the 11 cities in which protests were held — Boston and New York, for example — major news outlets treated this “National Day of Action” as though it did not exist. As far as I can tell, neither The New York Times nor The Boston Globe had so much as a news brief about the march in the days leading up to it. The day after, The Times, at least in its national edition, totally ignored the thousands who marched in New York and the tens of thousands who marched nationwide. The Globe relegated the news of 10,000 spirited citizens (including me) marching through Boston’s rain-dampened streets to a short piece deep inside its metro section. A single sentence noted the event’s national context.

Lanson’s ethics are not in question, and you will note that it was he who disclosed his participation in the event. But if it’s all right for a journalism professor to take part in an antiwar demonstration, why isn’t it all right to endorse a candidate for public office? I sent an e-mail to Lanson asking him that. He responded in a characteristically thoughtful manner that could be boiled down to a single phrase: it’s a tough call.

“It’s an interesting topic because the terrain for journalists and professors is different, but journalism professors sort of traverse both simultaneously,” Lanson said, adding that he has “a lot of respect for Carole and appreciated her willingness to discuss this at length with our students.”

But Lanson did put his finger on a key difference between what he did and what Simpson did, telling me, “What I should have told The Globe is this: ‘If we are in a public setting and if our students are there to cover news, we should model the behavior we expect of them to exhibit as working journalists.’ ” He added:

My logic is this: Students are just beginning to learn appropriate behavior as REPORTERS. It’s doubly difficult in an age of all-views, all-the-time. The way we act, the way we ask questions, the way we model reportorial behavior has a considerable effect on students as they begin to develop their own reporting and interviewing style. If we stand up and endorse a candidate or a policy or anything else, we run the risk of confusing students who are just learning how to act as reporters and of embarrassing those who already know how they’re supposed to behave and who want to be treated as professionals in the field.

In other words, Simpson’s decision to endorse Clinton, though ethically dubious for a journalism instructor, was not nearly as egregious as her blurting out that endorsement in front of her students at a campaign event they were supposed to be covering. It’s hard to disagree.

I also put the question to Steve Burgard, who’s the director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern and who previously worked for a number of years as an editorialist for the Los Angeles Times. Here’s part of what he told me:

Essentially, I have continued the view that I had as a long-time editor and then member of the LA Times editorial board. I stay away from political endorsements, contributions and campaigns as if I were still a practicing journalist whose independence might be called into question. In fact, while I was at the LA Times and today I remain registered as independent. In my view, journalists or journalism educators who take part in partisan political campaigns at some point leave themselves open to complaints that they are advancing an agenda.

Personally, I would not take part in a demonstration, as Lanson did, and I certainly wouldn’t endorse a candidate for public office. Yet I recently found myself caught up in political activism despite myself. I’ve written frequently here about my opposition to plans to build a casino in Middleborough, the town where I grew up. That led to an invitation from, the town’s leading anti-casino organization, to speak at a fundraising event.

I said yes. The event took place last Thursday. We all had a great time — good cause, nice people and they even gave me a plaque, which is now sitting in my office in Holmes Hall. Yet, ever since I accepted the invitation, I’ve had to run a disclosure every time I write about the casino issue. And though I don’t regret helping Casinofacts, I do wonder if I might have been better off maintaining some distance.

Perhaps, more than anything, the Carole Simpson issue shows the vast gulf between a journalist’s professional responsibilities and the notion of academic freedom. As an academic, Simpson has great latitude to speak out, and she took advantage of that latitude. Journalists, though, need to be circumspect. Some journalists, like Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, even go so far as to refrain from voting lest they compromise their objectivity.

I don’t think it’s a matter of objectivity so much as it is independence. Simpson’s liberal leanings have hardly been a secret over the years. But now she’s turned herself into a Clinton partisan, something that would be untenable if she were covering the race — and something that makes it harder for her to do her job of training young journalists.

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  1. Reuben from Plympton

    I find these discussions about first principles in journalism fascinating. But when does simple passion enter into the equation? It feels to me that journalists who will not vote are recognizing that simply by casting a ballot they are unleashing an interest within themselves they can only keep at bay by not participating in the process. It’s as if they recognize some gambler’s weakness in themselves. But journalists ought to be a participant in society–they’re citizens, too, after all, and they ought to be able to accept some complexity in their lives and work, same as the rest of us do. It’s the work of an intelligent mind to sort information and form opinions, and it’s best to admit an opinion rather than be disingenuous about it. A transparently feigned disinterest is the most damaging thing to journalistic integrity, I should think. The worst thing journalism does from my perspective is decide from a selfinterested business perspective what arguments have value and what interests need representation, yet this appears to be done all the time.

  2. Rick

    If she endorsed one of the Repulicans THAT would be news.

  3. O-FISH-L

    At 10 AM Dan said: “Simpson’s liberal leanings have hardly been a secret over the years.”I agree with you Dan, so why was she allowed to remain employed as an allegedly neutral reporter at one of the “big three” for so long? And why are some people still confused about the success of Fox News? I actually give Simpson credit for finally coming clean on her liberalism, albeit many years too late. She is yet another example of why so many Americans have lost faith in the media.The Media Research Center does a nice job today chronicling Simpson’s embarrassingly obvious leftward slant over the years. Check out some Simpson gems

  4. bahdaydah

    I’ve worked around a newsroom for a while and I have never once heard anyone say “my journalism professor was yoda to me.” Although, I don’t think anyone has ever heard that said anywhere. Anywho, Carole Simpson through her mistake probably taught those kids more in one trip than she would have the whole semester.

  5. Peter Porcupine

    I think I see a difference, slightly different than your colleagues. They are intermixing partisan and political in a dangerous way; they are not synonyms.Ron Paul opposes the war as much as Mike Gravel. Tom Finneran is as hawkish as John McCain. On many such issues – abortion, gambling, gay rights, death penalty – support and opposition are actually bi-partisan, no matter how much each party may try to characterize them as partisan issues. To speak for or against such an issue is not necessarily a partisan matter, even if it is political.A specific candidate endorsement, on the other hand, usually IS a partisan matter – although local municipal races are non-partisan (so you may be off the hook there, Dan). Humans are intrinsically political; I would only expect journalists to be non-partisan, and to resist stereotypes put forth by opponents of a point of view, but actually listen to the positions of a partisan candidate.Your Emerson colleague, however, rates full marks as a chucklehead.

  6. Anonymous

    Dan raises lots of good points, as do some of the commenters. I would only add, amidst all the legitimate concerns over potential conflicts and the appearance of bias, let us not forget the lesson of Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, et al. – neutrality is a myth.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 1:52: As I said, it’s not objectivity so much as independence. HST was clearly pro-McGovern in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” but he wasn’t in the tank to him. Even an opinion journalist needs to be independent. If I were to write that I thought Dennis Kucinich’s health-care proposal was the strongest of all the candidates, no one would bat an eye. But if I wrote that I’m going to vote for Kucinich because of his health-care plan — well, that would be a problem.

  8. Boston Venerable Bede

    This is one of your best articles. I agree with your proposition. Yet, I believe that your involvement on a local race for school board appears to be fair. You don’t cover local races usually.

  9. noternie

    I don’t mind a journalism professor endorsing a candidate or participating in a political movement.But I don’t think it can be done in the classroom or on a class trip/assignment. Not for ANY professor, no matter what they are teaching. I think that’s taking advantage of their position to influence their students.I think professors, journalists and journalism professors should be free to hold and act on their opinions on political and partisan issues. When it starts to interfere with the service they provide readers or students, however, I don’t think it is proper. For journalists, that means pretty much staying out of anything public. (They can vote.)But for professors and journalism professors, I think it just has to stay out of the “classroom.” That means you don’t bring kids to the Hillary rally and you don’t discuss the peace rally in class. Otherwise, I don’t think they need to completely “opt out.”

  10. Anonymous

    I tend to agree with not-ernie, but I would take it a bit further. I would have no problem with a journalist announcing his or her support for a candidate; at least that would give a prism through which readers can view their reporting. (The reporter’s employer may wish to pull the reporter off covering the campaign, but that’s another issue.)In times past, particularly in Europe, more than a few newspapers were organs of political parties, and it was relatively easy to determine their leanings and that would simplify assessing their veracity. With the rise of self-described “independent” newspapers (i.e., independent of political parties), it became much more difficult.–raj

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