The several Utah media that made cash contributions to fight the tax initiatives have so far steadfastly insisted they were perfectly within their rights. They also see no ethical question there.
On the first score they are technically correct, on the second just dead wrong.It isn't really a matter of rights but, as ethicists would put it, doing the right thing.
When the media donate money to political causes they are engaging in a conflict of interests. That is a recognized principle that has been thoroughly raked over in the trade press. Utah editors and publishers should therefore have recognized the risks. They should have known that they would be accused of unconscionable bias in donating to any political cause and that the donations could as a result backfire. They have embarrassed some of us who are as desirous as they of seeing the initiatives defeated.
The contributions ($7,500 by the Deseret News, Tribune, KSL, KUTV and $2,500 by the Ogden Standard-Examiner) were made public by Taxpayers for Utah, the group fighting the initiatives, in August. They led to a predictable outcry from the people who are pushing the initiatives, the Utah Tax Limitation Coalition, which likes to cast itself as plucky David to the establishment Goliaths.
- In the past six months the Deseret News has carried well over 200 articles either about the tax initiatives or prominently mentioning them.
I haven't made a systematic analysis of the article contents, though that would be a good research project. It seems to me, going back over the lists of those many stories, that the News has given the initiative's backers loads of space.
However, the weight of the coverage unquestionably favors the other side. Forgive the tax protesters for feeling the papers are crusading against them in the news columns.
Deseret News managing editor LaVarr Webb gave a reasonable explanation of the apparent imbalance on Ch. 11's "Elections '88" program Tuesday night. He said that while his staff has been instructed to provide equal play for the two sides, editors have found it tough to assure precise tit for tat. This is because a multitude of organizations that believe they will be badly affected by tax cutbacks are clamoring to be heard. There are relatively few spokesmen on the other side.
Webb also says he hasn't felt undue pressure to compensate for this imbalance. The play of the articles seems to bear that out. I did find one Tribune headline that seemed to consciously favor the initiative backers. It was on a story about the report tax protesters said identified $40 million to $60 million in fat in state operations. The headline said, "State has Potential for Huge Savings, Tax Protesters Say." Nothing in the headline about how apologetic the chairman of the study committee was in issuing the report, even though that fact was featured in the story. The News headlined substantially the same story, "Accountants discount findings of report on state's efficiency."
I am not at all persuaded by Webb's other point, that the newspaper proprietors should have the same leeway as other members of the community to make political donations. There is a vast difference in giving money to inflamed political causes and giving to all the other charities that beseech businesses for funds.
- Consider a couple of famous cases.
In the late '70s John Cowles Jr., the president and chief owner of the Star and Tribune Co., which had a near-monopoly in Minneapolis, ram-rodded a Chamber of Commerce task force organized to buy a site for a controversial community stadium. His own company gave $4.9 million plus land valued at $900,000.
An independent media watchdog body, the Minneapolis News Council, inquired into complaints that the owner's involvement had biased coverage of the stadium squabble. It concluded that coverage was reasonably fair and that reporters and editors had not been pressured to favor the owner's side. But one critic, Steve Isaacs, who had been editor of the Star, said the staff had to lean over backward to show it was not distorting its coverage.
"The greatest contribution an owner can make to his community is by putting out a quality newspaper that has a high standard of integrity and ethics," Isaacs said.
In 1978 Florida had a statewide referendum to legalize casino gambling. Many of the state's newspapers contributed money, about $180,000 all told, to defeat the campaign.
Responding to a complaint of bias from the group that put the issue on the ballot, the National News Council investigated the Miami Herald's involvement. This council also found no unfairness. Nonetheless, it saw danger when media executives undermine public confidence in the fairness of the news columns. It also said the contributions blur the line between the media and government.
One of the council's last reports, on conflicts of interest, said that in both these cases "journalists employed by the publications expressed feelings ranging from acute discomfort to outright anger because they believed their publishers' actions had compromised their credibility with the public whether or not the coverage was in fact fair."
The report recommended that journalists "avoid identification with, or outspoken advocacy of, controversial community issues" except in articles that were clearly commentary, as on the editorial page. There is even some danger that readers will see an editorial stance as polluting the news columns, but by and large readers understand that the editorial page carries legitimate opinion clearly separated from the news.
The Florida casino referendum lost. When it came up again in 1986, and was again rejected, none of the media contributed money. I'd like to believe the Utah media have learned the same lesson, but their lack of contrition gives me pause.