by Judy Hodgson
Editor and publisher
In the mid-1980s I attended a journalism conference in Sacramento. The keynote speaker was White House reporter Helen Thomas who told us hilarious personal stories about the last five or 10 presidents. (It may have been the last 20 presidents, she's been there that long.)
In a panel discussion about journalism ethics, I asked a question about how publishers handle conflicts between the advertising department and the news room. What do you do when an ad sales person pleads for leniency on behalf of a certain advertiser whose company was just cited for a toxic spill. One publisher told me to keep the departments totally separate -- as in separate buildings.
Easy for him to say. I was editor of The Union newspaper at the time and my desk was separated from the ad department by a flimsy plastic divider. I could always tell who was wearing what cologne. Phone privacy did not exist. We took our battles to the publisher whose job it was to make a decision and then smooth the occasionally ruffled feathers of an advertiser.
At The Journal the potential for conflicts of interest is greater because we are a smaller company and I have to wear many hats. I am a reporter, I sometimes sell ads, I write this opinion column, I do publisher duties in the community such as serving on boards -- and I am co-owner of the magazine.
To further complicate things, this is not the only business I co-own. You may have noticed that we avoid stories about wineries because for the last 21 years my husband and I have owned and operated the Fieldbrook Valley Winery. He makes wine; I help with wine tastings, fund-raisers, weddings and other events.
In the last few months, I have had to change hats frequently. When I was working on a story for the May edition (reporter's hat), I discovered a potential violation of the Brown Act, California's open meeting law, by the county supervisors. (See publisher's column, May 1997) Because they denied it, The Journal filed suit (publisher's hat). (See June publisher's column) Somehow it now appears that the winery is being involved in The Journal's dispute with the county (business owner's hat times two) -- and that's one hat too many.
Because we are in litigation, we will not report at this time on our dispute with the county. We'll leave that to the daily media and hopefully we will provide some perspective in a future issue. At press time we are preparing to go to court (Aug. 27).
Now -- for potential conflict-of-interest No. 2:
I recently finished reading Katherine Graham's autobiography, Personal History. She was the publisher of The Washington Post throughout the Watergate era. She followed in the footsteps of her father and her late husband, both of whom were very active in community and government affairs and used their position to make public policy. (Her husband, Phil Graham, for instance, played a significant role in getting Lyndon Johnson on the ticket with John F. Kennedy.)
But Katherine Graham has had second thoughts about just how active publishers should be in directing community and governmental affairs. Her advice to those in the media today is the fewer the entanglements, the less chance for conflict of interest and the freer we are to do our job.
Again, this is a small community. I served for two years on the St. Joseph Hospital Foundation Board (publisher's hat) to raise money for the Heart Institute because I believe there is a need in this community. Redding Medical Center and Mercy Medical Center both have fine heart programs (ad sales hat), but I think even more lives will be saved by having a good heart program here as well.
I am off the board now, but I have a certain empathy for those involved in the hospital's current turmoil. If we had more time or a larger staff, I should have assigned the story to someone else. But I didn't. I chose to do the story myself.
I hope I had the correct hat on that day.
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