A Wichita Eagle editorial argues for voluntary disclosure of ballot issue campaign donations, stating: “The groups on both sides of USD 259’s bond election should voluntarily disclose their donations before Nov. 4, rather than hide behind the state’s ridiculous disclosure laws applying to ballot questions.” (“Bond groups should declare donors,” August 28, 2008.)
If the Eagle’s really interested in openness and transparency regarding political campaign contributions, they could start by revealing their own. In 2000, as part of the campaign for the Wichita school bond, the Wichita Eagle donated $1,000 to Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education, or CARE. That’s the same group that’s backing the bond issue this year.
That contribution, made on March 6, 2000, wasn’t disclosed in campaign finance reports until November 21, 2000. No one I’ve talked to remembers the Eagle voluntarily disclosing this contribution in either news coverage or editorials.
A few things have changed at the Eagle since then. There’s a different publisher in charge. There’s even a different owner, as at the time of this contribution the Wichita Eagle was owned by Knight-Ridder. Here’s a sentence from the Knight-Ridder Code of Business Ethics, dated May 2002: “But it is very important to avoid situations that might raise a perception of bias in the context of newspapers’ or other news-gathering units’ responsibilities to report and comment upon such activities.” (You can read the full code at American Society of Newspaper Editors.)
Whether this contribution had an effect on the Eagle’s news coverage and editorials is unknown. That’s why codes of ethics mention the perception of bias. When a business makes a substantial monetary contribution to a cause and then editorializes about that same cause, that creates a very real possibility of bias. Many would say there’s more than the perception of bias — there’s actual bias.
This is reinforced by what the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists has to say under the heading “Act Independently:”
Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
Under the heading “Be Accountable:”
Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
Given the Eagle’s past history, here’s what we need to know this year: Has the Wichita Eagle made contributions to any political campaigns, especially to the group supporting the Wichita school bond issue?
If the Eagle would disclose this, they’d be following their own editorial advice. They’d be holding themselves to the same standards they want others to follow.