When journalists become flacks

Two views on what to do and when to do it

Flak on flack: A recent New York Times profile of avowedly socialist Congressman Bernard Sanders (Independent-VT) characterized him as “a maverick . . . [and] the first genuinely Independent candidate . . . since 1950 . . .” But while Sanders was wowing Washington, he was also vexing Vermonters by appointing a veteran political reporter as his press secretary. Nothing new about that. Despite their traditionally adversarial stance, journalists and press agents operate from two sides of the same coin: information (as opposed to lobbying). But what if Sanders’s press secretary had begun working on his behalf while still wearing her journalist’s hat? 

A reporter who reluctantly suspected such a scenario discusses her struggle to get the facts — and get them printed. A managing editor considers events from his point of view and draws a few lessons from the exercise.

By Nancy Wright, reporter; John Van Hoesen, editor

Nancy Wright is now on educational sabbatical from the Rutland (VT) Herald. At her request, FineLine has donated her writing fee to Investigative Reporters & Editors. John Van Hoosen is managing editor of the Rutland (VT) Herald and past president of the Vermont Press Association.

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. 8 (September 1991), pp. 2-3, 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 reporter: Nancy Wright

What do you do when you suspect a colleague has a hidden agenda? My bureau chief and I did nothing, despite our shared concern that Debbie Bookchin — a respected, prize-winning reporter — had evidently become a cheerleader for Bernard Sanders, one of the candidates she and I covered in the 1990 race for Vermont’s only [open] seat in Congress.

Within days of Sanders’s landslide win, Bookchin quit her job. Eight months later, she became his press secretary.

Was Bookchin’s behavior during the campaign evidence of bias? Or had scurrilous campaign tactics forced her into an unholy alliance with the Sanders camp?

It seemed the congressional race had no sooner kicked off when GOP operatives began employing McCarthy-like tactics against Bookchin and me, bombarding our editors in an effort to censor stories that might damage Peter Smith, their freshman incumbent.

They spread the word that I was out to get Smith. And they charged Bookchin with a pro-Sanders bias based on the fact that her father was a renowned anarchist scholar and her mother a member of the Green movement.

Although their methods caused me to bristle, I had learned to turn a deaf ear to Vermont’s political thin skins. But Bookchin said she’d never faced such vehement attacks. As the campaign heated up, her anger manifested in ways that raised questions for me and, eventually, my bureau chief, Jack Hoffman, as to whether she had lost her objectivity.

Whenever I wrote anything casting Sanders in an unfavorable light, she read me the riot act. But she praised stories reflecting poorly on Smith. She suggested we lighten our work load by each covering just one candidate. She’d take Sanders and I could have Smith. I refused.

Once, Bookchin seemed to know more than she should have about a potentially damaging story. Sanders’s people had accidentally faxed me a paper trail they were creating for tax auditors. It had all the makings of a great story — one that everyone from the campaign treasurer to Sanders himself tried to get me to drop. Minutes after their efforts failed, Bookchin called me, apparently to try to find out how I planned to handle the story.

In time, Bookchin’s words began to be filtered through the campaign itself. On one occasion, her criticisms of me were echoed by Sanders’s campaign press secretary. On another, her assessment of Smith’s tactics became Sanders’s own words at a news conference.

I never confronted Bookchin. I am not management and do not feel it’s my place to deal with personnel problems. Instead, I brought my concerns to my bureau chief. At first, Hoffman dismissed me with an ardent defense of Bookchin. But as election day drew near, he too became concerned. By then, she seemed to be arguing every campaign issue exclusively from Sanders’s point of view.

The 1990 congressional race was the hottest political contest Vermont had seen in a generation. Editors put us on alert that bias charges were flying and began combing our copy for anything that could lend credence to the charges.

Yet they couldn’t possibly know what was going on behind the scenes unless they were told. Should Hoffman and I have protected our colleague or told the editors what we suspected? The evidence seemed circumstantial and incapable of supporting a bias charge. We kept quiet.

Right before the election, Bookchin bought a $14,000 car, put her house up for rent and moved in with her mother. Several days after the election, she resigned from the Herald after ten years of service.

Although Bookchin cited health reasons (migraine headaches), I had to ask the obvious question. “Are you going to work for Sanders?”

“No, never!” she insisted.

When Sanders announced the members of his new staff, there was one gaping hole: no press secretary. I asked if he was planning to hire Bookchin. Sanders said no. He wasn’t going to have a press secretary at all, “Because they’re a waste of money and I can speak for myself.”

Six months later, AP reported that Sanders had hired a press secretary: Debbie Bookchin (at a salary of $48,500 — $19,500 more than she made at the paper).

I was disgusted, but not surprised. I’d seen it coming. Hoffman told me he was “disturbed and dismayed” but took no action.

I was convinced we had to do a story examining Bookchin’s relationship to the campaign and whether there had been a quid pro quo involved in her getting her new job. Word was out that our competition was working on an expose that Bookchin said she feared would be “a hatchet job.”

Better we should look at ourselves than have somebody else do it for us.

Managing editor John Van Hoesen, a close friend of Bookchin’s, said he wanted to treat the issue in a column rather than a “cannibalistic news story.” But if I could come up with a “smoking gun,” he’d let me do it, adding that he felt uncomfortable about assigning me since I was so close to the situation.

We argued for two solid days. By the time I got the go-ahead, I had been humiliated and made to feel that, by insisting we take a look at one of our own, I had committed the worst possible crime.

The clamor didn’t end there. Reaction to the two stories I ended up writing was just as explosive. My first piece established no hard evidence of a clandestine deal. However, it did show Sanders’s people considered her on their side — so much so that Sanders was said to be worried her favorable reporting might backfire.

My second story looked at the scores of Vermont journalists who’ve gone to work for politicians over the last 30 years. It was the first time the cozy relationship between the press and the politicians here had been exposed. And everyone — reporters, editors, politicians and flacks — scurried to suppress the debate.

First to react with vigorous defenses of Bookchin’s integrity and their own were several former reporters now working in PR. Nick Marro, now with the University of Vermont, wrote in an op-ed piece: “Because of the smallness of the state’s population, Vermont cannot afford the luxury of purity.”

The late Governor Richard A. Snelling, long an equal-opportunity employer for Vermont journalists, chimed in on the same note.

The Herald, a prolific breeding ground for flacks, used Snelling’s statements as a hook for an editorial stressing that no breach of ethics had occurred.

But it was my bureau chief’s column that really jolted me. Ignoring the concerns we shared prior to election day, Hoffman wrote that he had to ask himself why Bookchin couldn’t change her mind. “I’ve stewed about it for the past week” he ruminated, “but somebody else will have to cast the first stone.”

So be it. In a profession where truth is our stock in trade, we shouldn’t be afraid to take a critical look at ourselves. And it shouldn’t take such an ugly process to report our findings.

The editor: John Van Hoesen

Nothing weighed heavier on the collective mind of the press here this summer than the hiring of former Rutland Herald reporter Debbie Bookchin by Congressman Bernard Sanders. By the time 300 column inches on the story had come and gone, the exhaustive discussions of press ethics in the 90s had produced enough fodder for a college course.

The day AP broke the story, our newsroom buzzed and the consensus was: This did not look good.

Nancy Wright, the reporter who worked with Bookchin, believed pieces were falling into place that raised questions about the newspaper’s coverage of the campaign. Although she had never before raised concerns about Bookchin’s objectivity with anyone but her bureau chief and both had dismissed them — now she went into high gear to get the story.

The only complaint Wright dug up was from Peter Smith, the defeated Republican incumbent who’d complained about both Bookchin’s and Wright’s fairness. Now he said Bookchin’s appointment confirmed his suspicions. But — apparently forgetting that he’d hired a Burlington political reporter as press secretary days after his own election — he added: “I think it’s unfortunate from the point of view of the whole [Vermont] press corps.”

So the debate was on. What kind of a story should we do, why hadn’t a story like this been done on similar appointments, who would write it, who would edit it, was our campaign coverage and the paper’s integrity now suspect, what were the paper’s obligations to cover itself as it covered other institutions?

A top-level meeting was called. We decided that an editorial column was appropriate for a hard look at our coverage and the issue of reporters leaving journalism for press or public relations. We also decided to continue investigating the possibility of unfair reporting.

We might have deflected criticism had we assigned staffers who had limited relationships with the people involved. But Wright was pressing to do the story and we allowed her to, even though there was concern she might feel betrayed by her former coworker. I bowed out because Bookchin had been a colleague and friend for more than 10 years.

Questions still flew in the newsroom.

  • Was it legitimate to question the appointment at all? Yes. Every day, we pursue stories because they’re topics the public is talking about. This appointment surely met that test. Also, there was Smith’s complaint, albeit solicited by us and scarcely unbiased.
  • Was a different standard being applied here? No one remembered a previous instance in which so much was written with so little evidence of conflict. In a meeting, editors recalled name after name of Vermonters who’d left journalism to work as press secretaries or PR people. And nothing was recited more often than Smith’s own choice of a press secretary. Yet coverage of this magnitude hadn’t even been considered at that time.
  • Was there evidence that coverage of Sanders had been too favorable? We had a fair amount of perspective on this. Bookchin had covered Sanders while he was mayor of Burlington and they’d repeatedly clashed over her aggressive reporting. Also, in a lengthy Sunday magazine article entitled “How Socialist is Bernard Sanders?” she took a hard look at the mayor’s politics that included strong criticism from socialist experts around the country. Finally, when Sanders was trying to prove he could work with Democrats, a Bookchin feature story raised doubts that launched one of the main campaign issues against him.
  • Do a reporter’s known personal beliefs inhibit his or her ability to be professionally objective? Most reporters and editors I know vote and hold political beliefs but do everything possible to keep them separate from their professional work.
  • What assurance was there that the overall election coverage had been fair? All major campaign stories were discussed before written and each had at least two or three separate edits by longtime professional copy editors.
  • Important to all our decisions was the knowledge that Sanders had offered Bookchin the job sometime around June, after she left the paper for health reasons, and she refused it. This undermined the suggestion that the hiring was prearranged before her resignation.
  • Finally, should newsroom discussion on the preparation of the story be included in the published article? This issue was raised when Wright took notes on our phone conversation planning the story. I had no idea she considered the discussion an interview, while she believed it was hypocritical to think everything wasn’t on the record.

A discussion of sources, notes, taste, libel and story focus must be considered a workplace conference. What’s public is what the paper puts on the page.

The upshot: Six days after the story broke, we published a 62-inch front page story by Wright and a follow-up the next day about similar appointments.

What are the lessons we took from our enforced self-examination?

1Perhaps reporters who cover political campaigns should be required to refrain from joining political staffs for a certain period after elections. At the least, news organizations might adopt policy statements discouraging such immediate employment.

2Develop a written ethics policy, possibly based on that of the Society of Professional Journalists, although additions are needed to cover specific situations.

3Turn the spotlight on yourself and assign reporters and editors you’re certain have no conflict or appearance of conflict.

4Make sure that you’re not using sheer volume of copy as a substitute for truth.

5Be mindful that the reason journalists walk out the door is often for more money and pay them well.

6. A newspaper lives by its integrity. Reporters and editors must adhere to professional standards with the strength and tenacity of tigers.