The Message

Checks and Balances

Plenty of info consumers believe that the press regularly slants the news in one direction or the other, but definitively proving this thesis isn't easy. Left-wing readers of the Bernard Goldberg tome Bias, which contends that most outlets are liberal, may find the author's arguments to be merely anecdotal. Likewise, conservative viewers of OutFoxed, a documentary that charges Fox News with being a de facto PR machine for the George W. Bush administration, are apt to consider the conclusions drawn by filmmaker Robert Greenwald to be either hugely overstated or utterly bogus.

Campaign donations seemingly offer evidence that's less susceptible to dispute. If a reporter, editor or executive dips into his wallet on behalf of a candidate or cause, his objectivity on that issue must immediately be called into question, right? Yet evidence that coverage in Colorado has been swayed as a result of such actions is decidedly mixed.

Take Dean Singleton, whose MediaNews Group owns the Denver Post. Singleton is also on the Post's editorial board, but his opinion doesn't necessarily trump the views of those serving with him. "I contributed to George Bush in 2000, and the Post endorsed Al Gore," Singleton says. "And I contributed to [Republican Senator] Wayne Allard in 2002, and the Post endorsed Tom Strickland," Allard's Democratic opponent. He chuckles as he adds, "I don't think anybody can draw a correlation to my contributions, because I think that in virtually every case, the Post has editorialized against who I contributed to."

There are several exceptions to this rule. In 1996, Singleton gave $500 to Allard in his first race against Strickland; in that election, the Post backed Allard. Two years later, Singleton tossed $500 into the "victory fund" of Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who won the Post's endorsement as well as the election. Also in 1998, Singleton and Ryan McKibben, who was then the Post's publisher, publicly supported a ballot proposal to authorize the expenditure of taxpayer dollars to build what became Invesco Field at Mile High. Not only did the Post vigorously editorialize in favor of the plan, but it forked over $10,000 to a lobbying group dubbed Citizens for a New Stadium. Strangely, the Post's donation to CFANS, recorded on the Colorado Secretary of State's website, www.sos.state.co.us, is dated November 4, 1998 -- one day after the pro-stadium measure passed. The Post disclosed this donation in an article published early the next month.

For Michael Petrelis, a San Francisco-based activist who's tirelessly tracked donations by media representatives for the past six months, this acknowledgement, belated though it seems, is the crux of the matter. "When I first started my research, I really felt it was not okay for reporters to be making any sort of donations," Petrelis says. "Since then, I've been educated about how donations are really a part of First Amendment and free-speech rights. So my official position is yes, reporters and editors can make donations. But what I call for is transparency, meaning full disclosure about the donations in the papers and on websites, so readers can decide if there's been any influence."

Because few media organizations meet this standard, Petrelis uses his own site, www.mpetrelis.blogspot.com, to document donations. He was inspired to do so by the ethics policy adopted by the New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. In a section labeled "Voting, Campaigns and Public Issues," the mammoth document states that staffers "may not campaign for, demonstrate for, or endorse candidates, ballot causes or efforts to enact legislation. They may not wear campaign buttons or themselves display any other insignia of partisan politics." Furthermore, workers "may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides."

Indeed, the online revolution has made tracking political donations simpler than ever, and Petrelis used the technology to his advantage. Resources such as PoliticalMoneyLine, accessible at www.tray.com, revealed the vast scope of political giving among Times representatives. He discovered that dozens of past and present employees bequeathed dollars to a wide range of mostly liberal objectives, and so did a great many relatives of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the Times. Because Petrelis widely distributed his findings, the information found its way into publications such as the New York Post, a Times rival, and spurred a response from Sulzberger himself, who explained that many of the donations were made before the ethics policy was enacted.

More recently, Petrelis heard directly from Knight-Ridder chief exec Tony Ridder, who reacted to revelations about contributions submitted by personnel from his company, as well as questions about a 1999 donation to George W. Bush credited to him. In an August 31 e-mail to Petrelis, Ridder recollected that "my wife gave $2,000 to the Bush campaign and half of it was attributed to me. Since then, neither one of us has contributed to a political campaign, nor will we contribute again as long as I'm CEO of the company." Ridder subsequently pledged to "tighten our ethics policy, so there can be no ambiguity about newsroom personnel, publishers or corporate executives with newsroom oversight responsibilities contributing to campaigns that our newspapers are covering."

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