Operation: Buy yourself a parade

New York papers pitch in for hoopla celebrating hide-and-seek war

Bundles of bucks and buckets of ink were spent on a parade celebrating a war the media were bamboozled out of covering. Result: a byline strike.

By Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger is a reporter for New York Newsday.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 7 (July/August 1991), pp. 1, 8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

The stories were already edited for special sections on the city’s Operation Welcome Home parade when the reporters involved discovered that Newsday wasn’t just covering the parade.

We were helping pay for it too.

News of our paper’s contribution reached us in the way reporters least like to learn anything: We read about it in another newspaper. Even special projects editor Robert Friedman didn’t know about the sponsorship.

But, as a Village Voice media column informed us, Newsday had kicked in $25,000 to support the June 10 parade. Later, we learned that Robert M. Johnson, publisher of Newsday and New York Newsday, had served on the commission that organized the festivities.

And Newsday wasn’t the only local paper to endorse the parade with a handsome check. The New York Daily News and the New York Post also chipped in $25,000. 

The New York Times reportedly contributed about 20% of its $250,000 proceeds from a special advertising section (which it advised readers to “save as history”) to a fund for Desert Storm veterans.

But the company of other papers in the media donors club wasn’t much comfort to us. Nor was the chorus of controversy, which included two of our own columnists.

Jim Dwyer wrote that “New York Newsday and the others, with no evil agendas, are funding a public relations effort that — probably innocently — blurs the truth about what happened.”

Sidney Schanberg complained that the New York papers were “blithely becoming sponsors of a parade to celebrate a war they were in effect not allowed to cover as professionals.”

House ads hawking Newsday “Victory!” T-shirts didn’t help either.

Among the reporters who’d written stories for the sections, reaction was unanimous. In our view, the paper’s support of a controversial political news event we were assigned to extensively cover represented a clear conflict of interest.

How could readers be expected to separate the paper’s corporate sponsorship from its editorial decision to run special sections about the event?

There had been no pressure on us to alter the normal newsgathering process. But there was nonetheless every appearance of a conflict. How could we be seen to be covering the parade objectively when we had pitched in to sponsor it?

As reporters, we surrender our right to become involved politically: We don’t march in political rallies, join political groups or support political candidates because our involvement would create a conflict that would compromise our ability to report the news.

Now we reasoned that, just as a reporter forfeits those individual rights, so too should management forfeit some of the rights enjoyed by other corporate citizens. It must limit political involvement to expressing views on the editorial page.

After discussing the issue among ourselves, seven of the nine reporters who’d worked on the special sections decided to withhold our bylines from our work. Of the two reporters whose stories were published under their bylines, one was off work and couldn’t be reached. The other was Middle East correspondent Susan Sachs, whose first-person account couldn’t run without her byline. Sachs chose to write a letter of protest rather than scrap the entire story and leave a gaping hole in the section.

Management disagreed with our arguments, saying the parade donation was no different from a contribution to the Philharmonic. 

New York Newsday editor Don Forst called the group of us into his office and asked us to reconsider.

Forst said the newspaper’s corporate side makes all sorts of civic contributions that he doesn’t know about or want to know about, and they have absolutely no effect on the news pages.

But our feeling was that our newspaper and others should monitor corporate contributions to make sure they don’t inadvertently involve the news side in even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Some of the reporters present at the meeting felt we might reach a compromise by running a box explaining Newsday‘s sponsorship of the event.

Others said a disclaimer wouldn’t change the basic conflict. Ultimately, the point was moot since editors rejected the idea, saying that  Newsday‘s contribution was no secret and had been reported in a news story about the controversy over media funding of the parade.

In the end, the special sections went to press without bylines on most stories.

The majority of readers probably didn’t even notice. And, perhaps inevitably, those who did notice tended to confuse the issue of the newspaper’s involvement in the parade with the issue of U.S. involvement in the war.

One of the tabloids ran a column questioning the patriotism of the reporters who withheld their bylines.

To the enormous credit of the people who run Newsday, the byline strike resulted in surprisingly little in-house acrimony — and no subsequent retribution.

With less debate than is generated by the average office romance, the relatively minor controversy was quickly forgotten. But questions about the ethics of a newspaper’s involvement in civic projects should not be.

How does a newspaper company properly give back to the community it serves while still protecting its news side? And what about the sporting and cultural events routinely sponsored by newspapers and covered by their news staffs? Such occasions are not necessarily non-partisan either; their funding might also be reconsidered in favor of charitable donations made through some sort of blind trust.

In a shrinking business in a shrinking economy — and with more and more newspapers owned by companies with diverse interests — the risk of a paper’s corporate side unwittingly dragging the news side into potential conflicts has probably never been greater.

Meanwhile, the list of measures designed to protect reporters’ purity seems to grow ever longer. This year, for example, Newsday posted a list of journalism prizes reporters have been asked not to compete for because they’re sponsored by professional groups we may cover.

While that sort of vigilance is commendable, it should apply to our corporate as well.

 

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