NPR Employees Give to Democrats, One Guy Shocked

The reason even cheap hotels vacuum the floors when it’s easier to sweep the cigarette butts under the bed is that some guests look under the bed. So it is with ethics. Being virtuous is nice, but looking virtuous is mandatory.

The other day a gadfly named Michael Petrelis e-mailed me to report a few dust bunnies he’d come across at National Public Radio. A self-described “unrepentent gay Naderite,” Petrelis specializes in rooting out illicit political activity. Here’s a recent exchange published on his blog

Petrelis, after noting that political donations are taboo

at the Washington Post: “Then what the heck is Post reporter Evelyn Nieves doing giving $500 to Ross Mirkarimi, Green Party candidate for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors?”

Nieves, in reply: “In my case I was already compromised because Ross Mirkarimi is my domestic partner and of course I was rooting for him. So donating to his campaign does not further compromise me. The rule is: I stay out of writing about the particular race and/or any of the candidates in that race. I hope this answers your questions once and for all.”

It didn’t.

Petrelis: “I do wonder if your $500 donation to his campaign violated any Wash Post ethical guidelines.”

Nieves: “Ross and I live together. We have been partners for five years. I have not written about his campaign.”

Petrelis then shifted his gaze to NPR. He’d read with close interest the column ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin posted November 9 at Dvorkin told the tale of Michele Norris, an All Things Considered host who’d been pulled off political stories because her husband was a senior adviser to the John Kerry campaign.

Dvorkin wasn’t sure he approved. “Journalists are responsible for their own beliefs and careers and their ability to balance the two,” he mused. “But are journalists obliged to take responsibility for the ideas, opinions and careers of their spouses and partners? In the interests of full disclosure, should All Things Considered have aired the reason why Norris was not doing, for example, an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney?

“At a certain point,” Dvorkin went on, “complete disclosure becomes absurd.” He wasn’t certain where that point was, but “the final product should be the evidence. If there is a failure of journalism, it will soon be obvious. If there is no evidence of bias on the radio, the journalists should be allowed to get on with their jobs.”

In the course of these cogitations, Dvorkin allowed that NPR’s ethics code instructs NPR employees to keep their professional responsibilities untainted by private interests. He obliged his readers by providing a link to the entire “NPR News Code of Ethics and Practices.”

Petrelis’s nose must have twitched when he saw that. He followed the link and found exactly the kind of language he’d been looking for: “NPR journalists may not run for office, endorse candidates or otherwise engage in politics. Since contributions to candidates are part of the public record, NPR journalists may not contribute to political campaigns, as doing so would call into question a journalist’s impartiality in coverage.”

Thanks to research Petrelis had already done, he knew this instruction hadn’t been followed to the letter. He promptly sent Dvorkin a list of 13 contributions by seven NPR employees. “So what is NPR management doing about the donations?” he wanted to know. “Is management aware of the donations? Will NPR ask that the contributions be returned? Should NPR post the donations on its web site or include the information in an on-air story? If it’s determined the giving broke NPR policy, will the journalists be reprimanded? A prompt reply is respectfully requested and appreciated.”

Dvorkin refused to be ruffled. “In my opinion,” he promptly responded, “NPR employees are citizens too and as such are able to participate in the civic life. They may not use their positions at NPR to advocate for candidates or for matters of public controversy. I see no problem with any NPR employee exercising his or her rights as citizens. NPR management may have another view on this.”

Unsatisfied with Dvorkin’s amiably unapologetic reply, Petrelis turned to Hot Type. What interested me most about the matter was that the NPR ombudsman didn’t sound like much of a fan of NPR’s code of ethics. I wrote Dvorkin for clarification, and he replied, “Overall I think that the NPR ethics guide is a clear and valuable document. I personally disagree with this one aspect which prohibits NPR employees from participating fully in political activities. To me, it is more important to make sure that personal beliefs don’t spill over into professional obligations and responsibilities. Otherwise we would all be living and working from a defensive crouch that would be unbearable and uncomfortable. Life’s more complicated than that.”

For an official response, he told me to write David Umansky, acting vice president for corporate communications.

The language of the NPR ethics code is what made me think of hotel floors. “In the end, it is about trust,” says the introduction by Bruce Drake, vice president for news. If NPR journalists gave money to candidates presumably trust would be imperiled, because “contributions to candidates are part of the public record.” In other words, the contributors would get caught and it would look bad. So in the end it’s about appearances. Appearances can make something like a political contribution a bad idea from the standpoint of staying credible in the eyes of the public. But they don’t necessarily make it unethical.

If it’s Dvorkin’s belief that keeping up appearances isn’t a good enough reason to forbid NPR journalists to give money to candidates, I’m tempted to agree with him. What I’m certain of is that NPR hasn’t thought through the question of how things look.

Umansky was snippy. “I’m not going to get into a dialogue with you,” he let me know, having responded to my e-mail with a phone call. But he made a point of saying that the ethics code applied only to journalists. When I said I wasn’t sure what the distinction was, he said forcefully, “Is your delivery man a journalist? Does he affect what goes in the paper? A reporter, an editor, is a journalist.”

By Umansky’s lights, only one person on the Petrelis list was a journalist who’d strayed, and that person–Umansky wouldn’t say who it was–had been told by an editor that the contribution was inappropriate. “It will not happen again,” said Umansky.

The best-known name on the list belongs to All Things Considered newscaster Corey Flintoff, listed in public records as having given $538 to Dean for America last December 9.

“Actually, it was to MoveOn,” says Flintoff’s wife, Diana Derby. “I mistakenly put it in both of our names. Since then I’ve been very, very careful to put our political donations in my name.”

Umansky told me the Flintoff-Derby contribution didn’t count anyway, because the ethics code didn’t become effective until February 25, 2004. So in the in-every-sense-of-the-word-a-journalist category, that leaves only science correspondent Michelle Trudeau. She gave $500 to Dean for America last September and, after the code was put in place, $500 to John Kerry for President Inc. in May.

I couldn’t reach Trudeau. But surely, I told Umansky, as I studied Petrelis’s list, producers and engineers are journalists too. “We also put out entertainment shows,” he said.

Here in Chicago, Rod Abid is senior producer of NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and Michael Danforth works with him. Abid wrote two $250 checks to Kerry for President and a third to the Democratic National Committee. Danforth gave $250 to Kerry for President. “I’m a producer for a goofy news quiz,” said Danforth. “I don’t consider what I do journalism.” But now that the ethics code exists he doesn’t intend to contribute again.

Danforth gets it. If the argument’s about appearances, the distinction between so-called journalists and everyone else at NPR hardly matters. The fact is, seven employees is a very small number. The other fact is that all of them gave money to Democrats, which means people certain that NPR skews left have reason to say “I told you so” regardless.

As I made my inquiries, I continued to hear from Petrelis. “After we spoke on the phone,” he e-mailed me at one point, “I checked federal and state records to see if Chicago Reader reporters had made any donations to politicians or campaigns, and discovered executives made contributions.

“So my question to you is, what are the ethical guidelines of the Reader about such political giving? Another question is, have these donations been disclosed to the Reader’s audience? I couldn’t find anything on the Reader’s web site indicating such disclosure. . . . What do you say about these donations?”

I reply here through gritted teeth. No, the donations haven’t been disclosed to the Reader’s audience. Doing that had never occurred to us, and now that Petrelis has raised the idea, expect us to forget it. Readers who want to know who here gives what to whom are free to search the same Web sites Petrelis has mastered, such as

News Bites

Nobody chews an old bone like Jack Higgins. In the first four weeks after George W. Bush was inaugurated in 2001, Higgins drew five more editorial cartoons for the Sun-Times castigating Bill Clinton. He drew the new president once.

Now it’s John Kerry’s turn. Higgins pummeled him constantly going into the election and in the first week after Bush was reelected whacked him three more times. At least I think he whacked him; as Tribune blogger Eric Zorn has pointed out, Higgins’s many sallies against Kerry have been distinguished chiefly by their impenetrability.

Two weeks after half a million copies of the WomanNews section were destroyed in order to kill a front-page story on the C word, WomanNews tried again. The word that was poked and prodded on the front page of WomanNews on November 10 for every nuance of contemporary meaning: Housewife.

Baby steps.

The New Republic’s Jeffrey Rosen had a nice piece in the November 15 issue on life at home with a Republican wife. It’s surprisingly civilized, reported Rosen, noting that studies “suggest that, when politically mixed groups deliberate, they move toward the middle, whereas, when like-minded people deliberate, they become more extreme.”

A second cousin of mine worked a precinct in Cleveland for John Kerry on election day. She described the experience in an e-mail to friends. “I arrived at a black polling location suited up like an astronaut to ‘protect the vote’ from a team of aggressive, racially-profiling Republicans, and then when they did nothing of the sort boredom led me to befriend them and learn that they were there to ‘protect the vote’ from the hordes of illegal/out-of-state voters that we were sure to bus in en masse.” What she called “massive bilateral paranoia” gave way in the end to a collective interest in doughnuts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Brian Gubicza.