Journalists Not Loath to Donate To Politicians

*Media companies' policies vary widely

By Howard Kurtz, Washington Post Staff Writer

More than 100 journalists and executives at major media companies, from NBC's top executive to a Fox News anchor to reporters or editors for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, CBS and ABC, have made political contributions in recent years.

Some of these donations, detailed in Federal Election Commission records, violate the companies' own policies. But these policies vary widely; some media firms allow donations, others bar them for newsroom employees but not business staffers, and still others restrict only those covering politics.

NBC chief executive Robert Wright has contributed $8,000 since 1999, including $3,500 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and $1,000 to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Andrew Lack, a former NBC News chief, gave $1,000 to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) while NBC president, and Wright contributed $1,500 -- after the House committee Tauzin chairs held hearings on the networks' election night failures. NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the network allows its executives to make contributions and that Wright "does not make any decisions specific to news coverage."

Fox anchor Neil Cavuto, the network's managing editor for business, gave $1,000 to a fundraising dinner for President Bush in 2002.

"I wish he hadn't," said Fox News Vice President John Moody, who responded by circulating a policy Friday that discourages such contributions. "I hope our people will follow the advice I've given to them voluntarily. The potential perception is that they favor one candidate over the other." But he said he wouldn't ban the practice.

A Fox producer for Oliver North, Griffin Jenkins, gave $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney reelection committee.

Melanie Kirkpatrick, associate editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, donated $20,000 to the Republican National Committee and $1,000 to Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot said there are no prohibitions for those on the opinion side of the newspaper and that Kirkpatrick had obtained permission from his predecessor, the late Robert Bartley.

Asked about his staff making political donations now, Gigot said: "I'd advise against it."

Such donations raise difficult questions: Do employees of news organizations give up certain civic rights? Or, in an age when polls show growing public perceptions of media bias, should the appearance of siding with a candidate or party be avoided at all costs?

"A good rule of thumb," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, "is, if this were known publicly, would it cause the audience to have doubt about the credibility of this person's coverage?" That, he said, is often "a judgment call."

At the Post, business reporter Albert Crenshaw gave $500 to Maryland Democratic House candidate Ira Shapiro in 2001. Crenshaw said his wife made the donation before he told her that he could not participate in such contributions. Sportswriter Mark Asher gave $500 to Illinois Democratic House candidate Pete Dagher in 2002. He said his wife had worked with Dagher in the Clinton White House.

Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said he would discuss the matter with the reporters' editors. "You can't make political contributions at all," he said, citing the paper's policy.

For this story, the Post reviewed federal election records for the last five years in which donors identified themselves as working for one of 12 prominent news organizations. While no one who directly covers campaigns was listed in the records, some donors report on political issues occasionally or indirectly, or have in the past.

At ABC, "20/20" correspondent Jami Floyd, who covered the Florida recount in the last presidential election, gave $500 to the Democratic National Committee in 2000. Clark Bentson, a producer now heading for Baghdad, gave $250 to New Jersey Democratic House candidate Tim Carden. But ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said all donations are barred "to maintain our professional reputation for fairness and impartiality." He said that "we've already communicated" with those who donated "and everyone in the division understands the importance of rules like this."

Troy Roberts, a correspondent for CBS's "48 Hours" who once did a feature on the daughters of Bush and Al Gore, donated $1,000 to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign, as did Emily Senay, medical correspondent of CBS's "Early Show." CBS News does not restrict contributions. "There is a vast system of checks and balances before anything gets on the air," said spokeswoman Sandy Genelius.

At NBC, then-producer Ann Kemp gave $1,000 to Bill Bradley's presidential campaign in 1999. Spokeswoman Gollust says editorial employees can make donations only with advance approval, but could not say whether Kemp had received that approval. Gollust said Maria Shriver of "Dateline" was given permission to donate $2,000 to her brother, House candidate Mark Shriver.

When William Bolster was CNBC president in 1999, he donated $1,000 to McCain's campaign.

Paul Begala, a former Clinton White House aide who co-hosts CNN's "Crossfire," donated $2,000 to Democratic congressional candidates. CNN reporter Mike Boettcher gave $1,000 to his brother's Democratic Senate campaign .

Spokesman Matthew Furman said editorial staffers are barred from making donations, while others are "strongly discouraged." He said Begala is exempt as a part-time contributor and that Boettcher was given a waiver.

Newspapers are well represented in the FEC records. At USA Today, Richard Willing, who covers terrorism, legal issues and the Supreme Court, has given $500 to Howard Dean's presidential campaign. Willing has written about court cases involving Vice President's Cheney's energy task force and the administration's policy of holding detainees in a military prison in Cuba.

"Howard is one of my oldest and dearest friends," said Willing, who said his editors know that he met Dean in college and has contributed to his state races in Vermont. Asked if the presidential donation could raise questions about his coverage, Willing said: "I wouldn't have done it if I thought it did."

USA Today consumer reporter Jayne O'Donnell gave Dean $250 and food writer Jerry Shriver donated $1,000 to John Kerry's presidential effort. While parent company Gannett allows political donations, "clearly if a reporter was covering a campaign it would be unacceptable," said spokesman Steve Anderson.

Christopher Schroeder, a Washington Post Co. vice president who stepped down in January as chief executive of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, gave $1,000 to Bush's presidential campaign in 1999, before being promoted to run the online operation. He said he stopped donating after accepting that post. "You'll not find anyone who's a firmer believer and supporter of the church-and-state separation than I am," Schroeder said.

The New York Times banned donations by newsroom employees last year because of "a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides," said spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. Before the ban took effect, magazine staff writer Barry Bearak gave $250 to a Green Party Senate candidate and travel writer Betsy Wade gave $383 to a Democratic House candidate. Business reporter Karen Arenson said her husband's $1,000 donation to Hillary Clinton was mistakenly reported in her name. Music critic John Rockwell, a former arts editor, gave $2,000 to Clinton in 2000.

Rockwell, noting that he doesn't cover politics, said he was unaware of the rules change when he gave Dean $250 about nine months ago. "If there's a Times policy against any kind of contribution, I will observe it henceforth," he said.

Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walter Mossberg got a waiver to contribute $3,000 to Democrat Shapiro, "my best friend of 35 years," and reporter Laura Landro gave $1,000 to Bradley. Managing Editor Paul Steiger said there was "some screw-up" and that Landro's husband has assured him that he made the Bradley donation. The Journal's policy is that news staffers "should not be active in either big-time national causes or national partisan politics." Steiger said.

Los Angeles Times food writer Charles Perry, who has given the Republican Party $2,550, said, "I cover a non-political area." Janet Kaye, a part-time member of the paper's polling unit, gave $450 to Dean. On the corporate side, former Times Mirror general counsel William Niese put more than $10,000 in Republican Party coffers.

"It's a funny situation because we wouldn't prohibit someone from voting," said Deputy Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky, adding that the paper has not allowed donations by those involved in political coverage, but is drafting a new ethics code. He said political donations "can give the perception you're skewing coverage."

Newsweek has no restrictions on political giving, and Time bars only those involved in political coverage.

Time publishing reporter Andrea Sachs gave $1,000 to a Democratic House candidate. At Newsweek, then-Moscow bureau chief William Powell Jr. gave $1,000 to McCain, and then-publisher Carolyn Wall donated $1,000 to Bradley.

Many of the other media employees in the FEC records worked in business or technical jobs or are no longer employed by those outlets.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.


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