BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. A flareup of interest in conflict-of-interest. The Boston Globe revealed last week that 15 reporters, including some of its own, have donated to Robert Reich's gubernatorial campaign. Broadcaster Charles Osgood is being scrutinized for his close ties with an environmental group that he covers on occasion, and in April interviewer Charlie Rose was caught on tape by Public Radio's own Harry Shearer sweet-talking shareholders of a giant corporation.
CHARLIE ROSE: As you have seen the Coca-Cola Company's line of communication with consumers all over the globe could not be stronger. Thanks to the Coca-Cola network and its resolve, Coca-Cola's invited to be a part of people's lives everywhere.
BOB GARFIELD:But when does an outside interest constitute a conflict? A small town daily in Bay City, Michigan recently placed its features editor on unpaid leave for displaying a political campaign sign in her yard. Never mind that the campaign was her husband's and he put up the sign. The couple eventually removed the sign and she returned to work on Thursday but they're threatening legal action. Joining us now is Tony Dearing, editor of the Bay City Times. Tony, welcome to On the Media.
TONY DEARING: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's first discuss the editor. Her name's Jalene Jamison [sp?]. What is her job at the Times?
TONY DEARING: She is the features editor and would oversee such issues as home style, menu items.
BOB GARFIELD: So I'm gathering that local politics doesn't often find its way into her purview.
TONY DEARING: That is not part of her direct responsibility, no.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm flummoxed to imagine how her political leanings might affect how she edits an article on home styling. Was there a need to enforce this policy uniformly across the board?
TONY DEARING: Yeah. Although Jalene is our feature editor now, probably no more than a year ago she was working as an editor on the news side and was making news decisions. She could potentially in the future move back into a news side. You know, at papers our size, people move around.
BOB GARFIELD:I'm presuming that the policy, when it was written, did not anticipate the question of someone whose husband of his own free will put up a political sign in her yard -- they're married. You're asking her husband actually to waive his right to support his own candidacy just because he's married to a newspaper person.
TONY DEARING: No, that -- actually the policy did anticipate that. I mean we understood that this type of situation could arise. Any employer, not just a newspaper, may at times ask things of their employees which affect the spouse. For instance, someone may have a vacation requested, and the day before the vacation their boss might call them in and say listen, I'm sorry -- we've got some real problems here; we need you here. You can't go on vacation, and obviously that affects the spouse.
BOB GARFIELD:We routinely expect journalists to keep not only their coverage separate from what their spouses may or may not be doing but from whatever it is they may themselves think about any given issue. Is there not, however, a kind of paradox of avoiding in your personal life expressions that are completely separate from your professional life and isn't the insistence that there be no appearance of a conflict of interest itself kind of a dishonest way to operate? It suggests that reporters somehow are immune to political points of view.
TONY DEARING: I think that the dilemma that we're facing as a profession right now is not that we worry too much about these issues but that, that we haven't worried enough. Among journalists of roughly my age or older there are very strong feelings that you draw very clear lines, that you bend over backwards on ethical issues. Among younger journalists I guess I detect more ambivalence. Frankly, I think that's one of the reasons why we've run into some of the problems we have in the industry. As journalists our credibility is our most important asset. I mean, mean if people do not have faith in the newspaper, then there's no reason to believe in it.
BOB GARFIELD: Are you crediting your readership sufficiently with the ability to understand the complexities of Jalene Jamison's situation?
TONY DEARING:I do think our readers have had some trouble understanding this. Some of the ethical distinctions that journalists draw are not quite as crystalline to them as they might be to someone in the profession, and I accept that.
BOB GARFIELD: Wouldn't a little disclosure go a long way to solving any suspicions on the part of your readers?
TONY DEARING:Yeah, well disclosure is an important part of it, and we have in several stories before this became an issue -- when we were simply doing routine stories about her husband's candidacy -- made it clear to our readers that he is the wife [sic] of Jalene Jamison, feature editor at the paper. We don't think disclosure alone solves the issue.
BOB GARFIELD:One last thing. If they eventually decide to sell their home and they put up a for sale sign, do they have to delete the name of the realtor?
TONY DEARING: No, the-- I mean the rules deal with political activity and-- I don't see any dilemma there.
BOB GARFIELD: Tony Dearing. Thank you very much.
TONY DEARING: I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Tony Dearing is the editor of the Bay City Times in Bay City, Michigan.