FREE SPEECH FOR JOURNALISTS. How much free speech is a journalist entitled to outside his or her own newsroom? It's a fascinating and difficult question. On the one hand, you have purists like Washington Post executive editor Len Downie, who is well known for not voting lest it sully his objectivity. On the other, there are journalists who contribute money to political candidates and think nothing of it. (Media Log's view: vote, yes; give money, no.)
The Internet has only made this more complicated. The latest example: Boston Globe technology columnist Hiawatha Bray, who is the subject of a hyperventilating piece on David Brock's watchdog site MediaMatters.org.
The article reports that Bray wrote posts to several weblogs during the past presidential campaign criticizing John Kerry, praising George W. Bush, and passing along the claims of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which cast a number of aspersions on Kerry's record as a war hero. Virtually all of those aspersions were proven false, a fact that Bray seems not to have grasped.
The story has already been picked up by Raw Story and AlterNet, so Bray is definitely in for a few days of razzing. Good thing he wasn't cheerleading for Kerry, or Rush, Fox News, and the entire right blogosphere would be going berserk.
It looks like Bray won't be posting political comments in the future. When I asked him to respond to the Media Matters article, he referred me to Globe spokesman Al Larkin, who e-mailed to me the following statement:
Mr. Bray is a technology reporter and did not cover the presidential campaign, other than a minor technology-related story on very rare occasions. That said, his blog postings were inappropriate and in violation of our standards, and he was informed of that when we learned of them last Fall. Mr. Bray was instructed to discontinue any such postings, and to our knowledge he complied.
Mr. Bray was not a Globe reporter on the Swift Boat Veterans matter, the presidential primaries, or the general election campaign. Our coverage of those subjects should be judged on its own merits, and we are confident the coverage meets the standards of fairness, accuracy, and honesty.
The Globe's statement raises a larger issue: what constraints, if any, should there be on a journalist who wishes to share his political views in forums other than those provided by his employer? Clearly the Globe is taking the conservative approach, which it has a right to do. But is it the smartest course?
Bray, as it happens, has his own blog, MonitorTan.com. It appears to be devoted entirely to tech issues. If you search for either "Kerry" or "Bush" for instance, you will get technology stories about the campaign, not political rants. But the matter of journalists having blogs not connected with their employers can be a contentious issue.
In 2003, Hartford Courant travel editor Denis Horgan was ordered to stop writing a personal blog in which he had been expressing his opinion on any number of subjects. Courant editor Brian Toolan told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher: "Denis Horgan's entire professional profile is a result of his attachment to the Hartford Courant, yet he has unilaterally created for himself a parallel journalistic universe where he'll do commentary on the institutions that the paper has to cover without any editing oversight by the Courant. That makes the paper vulnerable."
That led blogger-journalist J.D. Lasica to write in disdain: "Toolan and his merry band of control-niks believe that newsroom employees are chattel. We can't have journalists expressing views online because then someone somewhere might accuse them of not being wholly chaste, objective, devoid of opinions."
Journalists who do have their own independent blogs tread pretty carefully from what I've seen. An example: Hub Blog, by Boston Herald business reporter Jay Fitzgerald, a project Fitzgerald began before going to work at One Herald Square. Hub Blog is a worthwhile read, but Fitzgerald's online persona is pretty much the same as it is in print.
Increasingly, journalists write blogs for their own news organizations. Media Log is an example of that. But, like an independent blog, Media Log entries are not edited before I post them. Instead, my editor and I talk about what's working and what isn't, which is a kind of after-the-fact editing.
I've also been known to shoot my mouth off in such forums as Romenesko's letters page and Jay Rosen's PressThink blog. This is almost exactly analogous to what Hiawatha Bray did. The only difference is that Bray was expressing opinions that he could never get into the Globe, given his beat.
Unfortunately, these nuances are completely missing from the Media Matters article on Bray. The article claims that Bray covered the 2004 presidential campaign for the Globe, which (as the Globe statement notes) really isn't true; all he did was write a few stories on peripheral matters involving technology. The article closes by noting that the Globe is owned by the New York Times Company, and quotes from the Times' ethics policy:
Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics. Staff members are entitled to vote, but they must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of The Times. In particular, they may not campaign for, demonstrate for, or endorse candidates, ballot causes or efforts to enact legislation.
(Note: the Globe has its own ethics policy. The Times does not own the Globe; rather, the Times Company owns both the Times and the Globe.)
Bray, in his posts, not only raised but answered questions about his neutrality. But he doesn't cover politics, which means it's questionable as to whether he compromised his professional neutrality. It might be different, for instance, if he'd written online that Steve Ballmer is the Anti-Christ.
Moreover, Media Matters presents no evidence that Bray campaigned for, demonstrated for, or endorsed anyone. Rather, he was expressing his opinion. Should he be able to? I say yes, but his editors obviously disagree.