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 Casinofacts.org, 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.