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Journalists Participate in Democracy; Gannett Cowers

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You really have to hand it to right-wing media hounds. They've gotten so good at bird-dogging the media that they don't even have to raise their alarm of faux outrage and trumped up claims of bias anymore. Now, so fearful are the once-great bastions of journalism of the mere accusation, that they hound their own.

See, for example, the Wisconsin newspapers of the Gannett chain, which Monday offered mea culpas for their 25 employees among the million-plus Wisconsinites who signed the petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker.

In virtually identical columns, allegedly authored by the local editor, each of the Gannett Wisconsin papers takes great pains to say, with slight variations in verbiage, that "none of the [...] employees who signed petitions are involved with reporting or editing or assigning political coverage."

Nonetheless, the editors accuse these staffers of ethical violations and subject them to disciplinary measures. (Romenesko asks whether claiming authorship for someone else's work is also unethical in Gannett's world. Will the editors face discipline as well?) In doing so, they claim:

The principle at stake is our belief 'that journalists must exercise caution and not become involved with issues that may cause doubts about their neutrality as journalists.' Engaging in political activity is foremost. That belief is even more critical in an era when journalism is under a microscope and our credibility is routinely challenged.

Leaving aside the false, quaint conceit that journalists are neutral, there you have a tacit admission that this action was motivated not by some high standard of journalism ethics -- higher than any news organization I ever worked for; I was always permitted and encouraged to participate in the democratic process -- but by fear that some political bullies might call them biased.

So routinely is every news outlet's credibility challenged that the accusation of bias is no more bothersome than ants at a picnic. Republicans, and conservatives in general, make it a routine part of their game plan, even though they've admitted it's a disingenuous ploy they use to escape blame for their own shortcomings.

But, O! The top levels of management at Gannett quake at the thought that professional name-callers might taunt them.

They assert that "journalists must make every effort to remain neutral and impartial when reporting or presenting the news. Journalists must go to extra lengths to guard against even the impression of favoring a candidate or a position."

That's true. That's why reporters are hired for their ability to report fairly on the issues, regardless of their personal politics, and editors are hired to ensure that they do. Does Gannett not have employees capable of doing so? And if that's the case, why are they still employed? And why are the people who hired them still employed?

But wait -- didn't they just say that none of the people who signed the petitions were involved in reporting on or assigning politics? If not, why are they somehow suspect? How do the acts of those uninvolved in political coverage impact the political coverage?

Granted, taking a position on an issue as contentious as recalling Walker is a political act. Signing a petition is clearly taking sides. But then, so too is choosing not to sign a petition. Are those staffers who did not sign because they support Walker and oppose the recall effort also facing disciplinary action? And if not, how does Gannett rationalize that choice? Because clearly any staffer who did not sign is presumptively a Walker supporter and can't be trusted to report fairly on the issues, right?

Given the choice, I'll take a reporter who owns up to her opinions over one who hides behind a fake veil of "objectivity."

While Gannett blithely allows that its employees have the right to vote, it differentiates here because the petitions are public record. Their staffers, accused of a career-threatening lapse of ethics, disagreed. "They equated it to casting a ballot in an election or simply calling for an election," Gannett wrote. "That rationale might work in an academic debate, but we do not make that distinction."

Actually, that rationale might also work in a court of law. Wisconsin Statute 103.18 holds, "No person shall, by threatening to discharge a person from his or her employment or threatening to reduce the wages of a person [...] attempt to influence a qualified voter to give or withhold the voter's vote at an election."

If I were one of the 25 Gannett Wisconsin employees singled out for discipline for participating in the democratic process and publicly accused of unethical conduct, which could substantially harm my prospects for employment and future earnings, I might consider whether Gannett has violated Statute 103.18 and defamed me in the process.

Many supporters of Gannett's public flogging have blamed the victims here, claiming the staffers knew that they were in the wrong, because they "signed a contract" that abnegated their rights and duties as citizens. But as any first-year law student could tell you, a contract that violates public policy or statute is void. You cannot be coerced into surrendering your rights as a citizen in order to receive a paycheck.

Gannett's handwashing ends with a finger-wag at the accused: "The super-charged emotions alone should have been a red flag to the journalists who signed the recall petitions. [...] They should have realized there would be a public backlash resulting from this lapse in judgment."

It takes real chutzpah to tsk-tsk your employees even as you cowardly, preemptively attack them for exercising their rights while admitting you did it because you were afraid that people might call you names.

But if backlash was what you feared, Gannett, I'd recommend you avoid reading the comments to your self-serving columns. Given the overwhelming support for your employees and their rights, you may have to find someone else to throw under the bus.