Friday, January 20, 2006

Interactive Journalism

Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi Thomas asks elected officials to take the pledge.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 20, 2006 at 4:00 AM

In the interests of good government, good newspapers, and their own infinite wisdom, The Commercial Appeal and columnist Wendi Thomas have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the code of ethics for city and county elected officials.

The 116-word Wendi pledge sent out last week says that an official won't accept anything worth more than $25 in a single year from anyone with city business, will "pay my own way into sporting events," and will "handle my personal financial affairs without help" from same. Finally, pledgers will "avoid the appearance of impropriety and will avoid placing [themselves] in situations which could create the perception of a conflict of interest."

Sign, date, and return by January 27th. Pretty simple, huh?

I hope that at least one elected official will sign in a heartbeat, with this condition: In the interest of interactive journalism, The Commercial Appeal, a monopoly daily newspaper which purports to protect the public interest along with the profit margins of the E.W. Scripps parent company, will disclose its net profit and profit margin for 2005 and how much of its earnings stayed in Memphis and how much went to Scripps headquarters in Cincinnati. Pretty simple, huh?

Not so simple in either case.

The Wendi pledge, with its eye-catching $25 cap, is somewhat similar to a December 8th action of the Nashville Metro Council in rewriting its standards of conduct and financial disclosure. The Nashville ordinance, however, is several pages long. It is full of definitions, clauses, and for-instances. It lists exceptions to the $25 cap and a separate $100 cap on meals, tickets, and travel expenses from people and organizations with council business.

My guess is that many council members and commissioners will decline to take the pledge for various reasons, even if it means getting flogged in the CA. Some of them will wonder if the next columnist, media outlet, or special-interest group will ask them to take an anti-abortion pledge, or anti-tax pledge, or anti-billboard pledge. Also, it may come as news to the CA, but both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission already have ethics codes. The commission's was drafted in 2004, the council's in 1999.

Both documents are six or seven pages long, which may strike some people and newspapers as unnecessarily legalistic. After all, why not simply pledge to "do the right thing"? The answer is that it is not always clear to reporters as well as politicians what that is. Does a fishing trip, tennis match, card game, or potluck supper with an important newsmaker, business leader, or lobbyist violate a code of ethics if no money changes hands? Codes of ethics, imperfect as they are, try to spell this out.

The Memphis City Council code says "that public office not be used for personal gain," but it takes several paragraphs and pages to define "interests," gifts, and campaign contributions and expenses that are acceptable or unacceptable. The dollar limit for non-pecuniary gifts is $250 -- with exceptions.

The Shelby County Commission's code of ethics is an august document that begins with a "preamble" which says commissioners should be "independent, impartial, and responsible to the people" and that public office "should not be used for personal gain." The dollar limit for non-pecuniary gifts is $250 -- with exceptions.

It is not surprising that the CA pays so much attention to $25 gifts and so little attention to financial disclosure. Scripps' newspaper division made nearly $200 million last year, but the company doesn't disclose financials for individual papers. So readers must take it on faith that times are tough and cuts must be made in staff and the CA's news hole, which included room for 14 stories Sunday about pro and college basketball.

Good questions about lots of things sometimes don't get good answers. Ask someone about their weight, salary, or feelings about their boss and the answer may well be "I'm not telling you." Elected officials can play that game too.

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