Free the Gannett 25!

March 27, 2012

Last week, the hall monitors who run Gannett’s 11 newspapers in Wisconsin brought the mean end of the ruler down on the wrists of 25 journalists for signing petitions to recall Governor Scott Walker.

Kevin Corrado, publisher of the chain’s Green Bay Press-Gazette, spoke the company line in a Mar. 24 column in which he stated that signing the petition constituted a “breach of Gannett’s principles of ethical conduct.” Promising “disciplinary measures” and additional “ethics training” for the signatories, Corrado continued:

A number of the journalists told their editors that they did not consider signing the petition a political act. They equated it to casting a ballot in an election. But we do not make that distinction.

According to Corrado, the Gannett 25 violated six of the 32 principles of ethical conduct in the company code of ethics, even though none of the busted journalists were covering politics. (It appears that the journalists were swept up in a dragnet that Gannett investigative reporters knit to capture the circuit court judges who signed petitions, not journalists. They bagged 29 judges, 12 percent of the state’s county-level judiciary.)

The jurist in me thinks that the Gannett 25 could easily beat the charges – which vary from not being impartial to being prey to potential conflicts of interest – in traffic court. To begin with, voting for a candidate – a grossly political act by any measure – displays much more partiality than signing a petition calling for a new election. When you vote, you declare for one candidate over the others. But signing a recall petition makes a more subtle statement, something along the lines of: “How about a do-over of the election?” If it’s all right for journalists to vote, surely it should be all right for journalists to express their view that there should be a new vote. The quantity of activism here is almost unmeasurable!

I suspect that what really irritates the Gannett bosses is not the deed but the visibility of the deed. Petition signatures are open to public examination, therefore discoverable by those looking to expose potential “bias” in news coverage. The content of votes, on the other hand, are secret and therefore invisible to aspiring media-bias busters. If votes were made public, news organizations would have to prohibit their staffers from voting if they wanted to be consistent. (Luckily, under current law, you can’t be barred from voting.)

So the ethical crime in Wisconsin wasn’t having political views, which the Gannett code allows. It wasn’t expressing those views in secret. It was expressing a weakened form of them in a way that could go public. As long as you conceal your views from the ethics cops, you’re safe.

Gannett’s ethics code is pretty standard, paralleling those erected at Reuters, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. So in giving Gannett a whack of my forehand,  I extend my backhand to all. The primary purpose of the codes isn’t to improve journalism but to simplify the job of policing journalists. It’s easier to hand down to the newsroom 32 commandments that govern behavior, as Gannett does, and then ship violators out for punishment and reeducation, than to examine their work for journalistic quality.

That journalists hold political views and act on them should surprise nobody. Are not they human beings? Back in the early 1990s while editing Washington City Paper, I tested this thesis by having a reporter check the voter registration information of 40 Washington Post reporters and editors I considered the paper’s best and most influential. By an overwhelming margin, they were registered Democratic. One columnist who registered Republican offered this excuse for his outlier status: He and his wife wanted to make sure they got on all the political mailing lists so they could see all the campaign literature. Each year they flipped a coin to determine who registered Democratic and who registered Republican. He had lost that year’s toss.

In a just and utopian world, news organizations would permit modest political activism by journalists – campaign contributions, placards on their lawns, bumper stickers on their cars, attendance at rallies, even the signing of recall petitions, etc. – as long as the journalists were willing to declare it. This proposal isn’t as radical as it sounds. At the core of the current journalistic codes is the notion that judging journalism requires us to judge the conduct of the journalists producing it. Instead of suppressing the political lives of journalists, why not allow that which is now covert to become overt and give readers more information to assess coverage?

Free the Gannett 25!


It should go without saying that, as usual, I speak for myself here and not my current bosses. Speak for yourself with email to I speak pure heresy on my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: A cameraman films a cell at the Noroeste high-security prison in El Rincon in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, February 28, 2012. REUTERS/Bernardo Montoya


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Reporters can affiliate with whomever they please, but should also quit claiming to be impartial. They are not impartial by any stretch of the imagination –which is why newspapers started failing long before the internet, and why conservative leaning publications do so much better. Look at the stats for FOX News, and the Wall Street Journal.

Gannett is tremendously partisan, and they were exposed publicly –otherwise they could care less. They are a poor excuse for journalism just like the vast majority of publications out there. Reuters being near the top of the list.

Posted by DawnBerkley | Report as abusive

Jack… You need an update pal: you said. “Luckily, under current law, you can’t be barred from voting”…. Go tell that to black people in GOP states, and see how many people laugh at you…..

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Why didn’t Gannet publish the names of the petition signing journalists? Doesn’t the public have a right to know? The reading public would then be able to judge objectivity of stories these journalists write. This is no different than publishing the names of corporations and individuals that donate to petitions in California.

Posted by nastwood | Report as abusive