September 3, 2007
Almost every journalist I know has conflicts of interest up the wazoo. Almost every journalist I know hates admitting that. Including me.
Conflicts mean passing up juicy stories. Conflicts can cost money. Conflicts involve hurting friends. Conflicts might help enemies. And when it comes to conflicts involving family members, there's that note of discord they introduce in the domestic harmony.
How much simpler to pretend they don't exist.
The trouble with that approach is the journalist is rarely the only one aware of the conflict. Sooner or later, somebody is going to bring it up. At which point, the journalist could do what he or she should have done in the first place: Admit there's an ethical problem, apologize for having ignored it and promise to stay away from the story in the future.
Of course, hardly anybody does that.
Instead, there's a tendency in this profession to get defensive. To try to turn the attack back on the critic. And above all, to utterly and completely deny that a journalist of such unimpeachable integrity as oneself could in any way be associated with so much as a hint of unethical behavior.
For a classic example of this phenomenon, consider the case of the Bangor Daily News and its coverage of a controversy involving Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
On August 15, the BDN carried an editorial criticizing Collins' opponent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, for failing to denounce his party's employment of a "tracker," which is somebody hired to produce video of a politician's public appearances in hopes of capturing material that can be used in embarrassing campaign ads and Internet postings. The editorial claimed this practice "worsens the opportunity for Maine to hold a decent race" and "tramples on the privacy of Maine people" who approach candidates with questions.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I recently used my weekly political column to dispute those contentions.)
On August 24, someone using the name "maineiac" posted an item on the liberal Web site Daily Kos
pointing out that Mark Woodward, the executive editor of the newspaper, was guilty of a conflict, because he was married to Bridget Woodward, a member of Collins' staff. "For a bunch of folks who are SO concerned with potential problems in how campaigns are run," maineiac wrote, "the BDN is living in a big glass house."
Other sites quickly jumped on the issue, including tpmelectioncentral.com,
which attempted to reach the Woodwards, but got no replies, leaving the writer to conclude the ethical issue was real: "[I]f Collins were to lose the election, the wife of the executive editor of a major newspaper in Collins' home state would be out of a job - which would cause some serious inconvenience for that household."
The following day, Jen Burita, a spokesperson for Collins, got in touch with the site to dispute that allegation. The election would have no effect on the Woodwards' personal finances, said Burita, because Bridget Woodward planned to retire in September, more than a year before the election. What's more, Burita added, the BDN had a counterbalancing conflict involving the Allen campaign, in that the congressman's cousin, Tim, was the paper's news editor.
Tim Allen works directly for Woodward, so it's difficult to see how he could be secretly influencing coverage. But it never hurts to muddy the waters.
The Woodwards continued to stand mute.
On September 1, Todd Benoit, the BDN's editorial page editor, got involved by writing an op-ed piece about the controversy, in which he dismissed the ethical controversy. "Whether you believe this to be news," Benoit wrote, "depends on which team you are rooting for in the 2008 senatorial contest."
Benoit claimed there was no attempt to hide the connection between Woodward and Collins. It was just a matter of timing. "If not all BDN readers know," he wrote, "it is because the election is still well over a year away and the editors tell me they thought they could wait on an announcement until more people were paying attention."
Other than that cryptic mention of "the editors," there's still nothing on the record from either Woodward.
Benoit correctly pointed out that the editorial page is not overseen by Woodward. But he incorrectly assumes that settles the matter. Even if Woodward had nothing to do with the pro-Collins opinion piece, there's certainly a perception among some segments of the public that the BDN leans in the Republican candidate's direction in this race. After all, Woodward used to be the senator's press secretary.
In 1997, Woodward left his job editing the paper's editorial page to serve as Collins' mouthpiece. He returned to the BDN a few months later and was named to his current position.
All of which should have made the Bangor paper extra sensitive to the possibility it would be seen as ethically compromised in covering this campaign. Revealing its conflicts, both real and perceived, early and often might have had a mitigating influence. Too late for that now. Having Woodward clear the air in his own words, rather than hiding behind Benoit's, might have helped. That remains a possibility, but the time to do it effectively is limited, because while the executive editor dithers, his credibility continues to crumble.
As I said at the beginning, journalist hate admitting they're involved in these kinds of ethical dilemmas. But I will, anyway. In 1995, Woodward fired me as a columnist for the BDN. He said I was too mean.
I don't imagine this piece is going to change his opinion.Al Diamon has a long pedigree in the Maine media, having spent the past 30 years in radio, TV, print and, now, on the Internet. He writes the weekly column "Politics & Other Mistakes," which appears in 10 Maine newspapers, as well as the monthly column "The Other Column," which appears in three. Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.