In Italy, politics and Silvio Berlusconi are inseparable. He owns the three largest television networks and dominates the book and magazine publishing business. Now that's a conflict of interest.
In comparison, Patrick Cleary's run for Fifth District Supervisor while owning Humboldt County radio powerhouse KHUM/KSLG is small potatoes. But his Fifth District challenger Ryan Sundberg thinks the conflict big enough that he pulled out of an upcoming debate that was to be broadcast on KHUM, even though the questions would come from the North Coast Journal.
Just writing about conflicts here shows how difficult they are to avoid in small towns. Here are my disclosures: I know Patrick Cleary and at least four people who work with or for him. I don't know Ryan Sundberg. I once voted for Patrick Higgins, who is challenging both Cleary and Sundberg. Hank Sims, who edits this column, once called me a "walking conflict of interest." That's because at the time, my husband worked for Paul Gallegos and I was helping out on the D.A.'s first reelection campaign. For the past three years, my investigative reporting class has worked on stories that demanded that students interview Gallegos and slap his office with public records requests. I am also chair of the Humboldt County Commission on the Status of Women, and last week I hosted a radio show on KHSU on the issue of pay equity. Should I not have done that as a commission member?
I thought about this at a conference this past weekend on innovations in journalism, many of which involve citizen journalists. They bring new conflicts.
From the road, I emailed Caroline Titus, who publishes the Enterprise in Ferndale (where only hermits live conflict-free). "My husband is co-owner of the paper and occasionally contributes sports articles," she wrote. "He is also the manager of the Humboldt County Fair. He has been mayor and is now serving a second term as a City Councilman. I have three children involved in Ferndale schools, sports and various organizations. And various members of my husband's large family have been the subject of news stories." She deals with these conflicts with every issue of her paper. In it she has criticized her husband's decisions and actions as public official and has extensively covered the problems at the Humboldt Creamery, even though her cousin by marriage is its former CFO.
The question is: Can you be involved in local media and still participate in your local community, and is it even possible to bow out of participation entirely? Dave Rosso, the former city editor of the Times-Standard, worked for the United Press International wire service for years. "I think the primary responsibility of every journalist in this small-town type of situation is upfront honesty," he wrote. "Everybody must know that you are a journalist. While I was an active journalist I never participated in activities that would have taken a side. I covered anti-war demonstrations in Washington, D.C., while at UPI, and wrote about them. But, even though I was adamantly against that war, I never joined any of those protests."
Rosso's take complies with ethical guidelines long established by the Society of Professional Journalists. Under a section of its Code of Ethics titled "Act Independently," it says: "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know." It lays out these mandates: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived; Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility; Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity; Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
But I think we emphasize perceived conflicts of interest and over real conflicts. Rosso emphasized honesty. Everyone must know you are a journalist. He avoided participation -- perceived conflict. But he couldn't avoid real conflict, which was his adamant opposition to the war, even as he covered the anti-war demonstrations.
I tell my students that the one unbreakable rule is honesty. But that also means that you can't pretend to be free of conflicts just because you currently belong to no organization. Were you never in the past a member? Did you never vote? Just because you aren't registered in any political party, are you really right down the middle, and wouldn't that mean that you side with centrists over those who lean left or right? Sometimes the only way the public will know -- SPJ says the prime obligation is to the public's right to know -- is if you participate.
And how do you control your spouse? When I was at thestreet.com, which was a reputable online news publication that covered the stock market, the company forbid ownership of stock of any company a reporter wrote about. It was a bogus rule. The company couldn't control and didn't try to control spousal stock ownership. Because my students are now reporting on an issue involving criminal justice, I tried to keep a Gallegos sign off my property -- perceived conflict -- but my lawn is two-thirds owned by my husband and sister and I got outvoted. Meanwhile, should I avoid saying howdy when both our kids are climbing the tree at the Farmer's Market?
As for Cleary's control of KHUM, I was more disturbed by his management of KHSU, another source of local news and information. That was a clear conflict, as any listeners the public station drew would take potential listeners away from his for-profit stations. Still, his ownership of KHUM and his run for office leave me troubled. KHUM and KSLUG in Humboldt are like The Daily Show and Steven Colbert. Even as they entertain us they inform us of important news and events. If I worked for Patrick Cleary and he were supervisor, I would think twice about reporting that contradicted his political stands. That doesn't mean I wouldn't report them. At thestreet.com, we often reported negative news about companies that the owner, James Cramer, had large investments in. It was seen as a badge of honor. I don't doubt that the Berkowitzes, Dronkers and others at the station have the backbone to stand up to Cleary or even risk their jobs to keep their stations free of self-censorship. And I seriously doubt Clearly would actively try to steer the radio content in any way for political ends. But for the staff's protection, I would like Sundberg to participate in the KHUM broadcast, ask that question of Cleary live, and get him to pledge, on his own station, that no one who works for him would ever face any negative job consequences for broadcasting or failing to broadcast anything connected to the Humboldt Board of Supervisors should he get elected.
Or maybe he should relinquish his control of the station to someone else. He could give it to me. I have no plans to run for office and I've always wanted to run a radio station. Now Mike, here's what I think you should say ...
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism at Humboldt State and is filled with internal conflicts.