Did Political Columnists Cross the Line?
Did two columnists who blasted Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge have a conflict of interest?
By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at
the Washington Post.
W HEN PENNSYLVANIA GOV. TOM RIDGE told reporters he'd secretly bowed out of the GOP veepstakes in early July, three weeks before Dick Cheney was tapped, he got slammed for staying silent so long. It didn't matter that he said he'd quit for family reasons, and that he'd kept mum at the request of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Several newspapers ran stories quoting political scientists and ethicists critical of Ridge for failing to squelch speculation about his prospects, especially at a July 13 campaign appearance in Pittsburgh, when Bush said he was still under consideration. ###
Ridge's office expected a rough response to the July 25 revelation, says press secretary Tim Reeves. But the words of two columnists struck him as unduly harsh and mean-spirited. And he immediately thought he smelled a journalistic conflict of interest.
It so happened that Peter DeCoursey and Al Neri, who report and write columns from the Statehouse for Harrisburg's Patriot-News and the Erie Times-News, respectively, had been working together on a book about Ridge and had signed a contract with an agent to shop it if Bush picked Ridge for his running mate. Reeves read resentment and bitterness in their columns on the governor, which were published the day before the Republican National Convention began in Philadelphia.
"This wasn't just a matter of a reporter writing a book on the side," Reeves wrote to the columnists' editors. "This was giving a reporter, whom the editors knew had just lost his chance at a major book deal, a forum to personally attack Gov. Ridge, over the very decision that took that book deal away."
"Absolutely not," read the headline over a response by Erie Times-News Executive Editor Bob Lloyd. Tom Baden, managing editor of the Patriot-News, called Reeves' complaint a "red herring." Both editors, in replies published next to Reeves' letter, noted they set up strict guidelines for the journalists to follow while writing the book. They questioned why the press secretary, who had known about the book project since it began in May, waited so long to raise a fuss over the reporters' objectivity.
"The burden is not on me to complain at the right time," Reeves says. "My complaint is very specific and did not exist prior to these columns."
DeCoursey's column chides the governor for putting the state through "weeks of deceit" and carrying out a "masquerade." It says Ridge bailed out once he knew he wouldn't be picked. "He used his family as a crutch to help him hobble off the field," DeCoursey wrote.
DeCoursey says his column is "tough" but justified, and solidly sourced. In nearly four years covering Ridge, "I've never known this to happen before," he says. "A guy with an 18-year relatively deserved reputation for candor did not [act] in accord with that."
Neri wrote that Ridge, with "his three-week deception of the press and public," had "lowered himself to the ranks of political weasel." Neri says in hindsight he "might have thought twice about the loaded term 'political weasel.'... This one harsh term seems to have blinded everybody, and I regret that that happened. At the same time, I defend the use of the word, as [Executive Editor] Lloyd did, for what happened: that the governor playacted a role that wasn't true for three weeks."
DeCoursey and Neri had reported prior to writing the disputed columns that Ridge's chances at the No. 2 spot were increasingly slim. For that reason, they say, they had put the book project on hold even before the Cheney decision was announced July 25. Neither had disclosed the potential book deal in print.
"I guess I never thought it was necessary to disclose about the book because the book was always just a prospect. No money had changed hands," Neri says.
Baden, who edited DeCoursey's column along with another editor, says: "The notion of how a potential book deal that had gone down the tubes two weeks earlier might have affected Pete's thinking was the farthest thing from my mind."
Gene Foreman, a veteran Philadelphia Inquirer editor who now teaches journalism at Pennsylvania State University, says the columns seem particularly personal and contain "pretty extraordinary" language. Foreman says the columnists should have disclosed their book plans to readers. Otherwise, "they opened themselves up to what Tim Reeves said, namely, that they were acting in pique" because of their vested interest in Ridge's political fortune.
Neri and DeCoursey say they had no reason to resent Ridge's decision to quit. They're still planning to write the book. And they scoff at the idea that they've lost a shot at big bucks. Under their contract with literary agent Tim Hays, they would write a book if Hays found a publisher who would advance them at least $15,000.
"If you divide [$15,000] by two people and the amount of work that would be involved, it comes down to minimum wage," Neri says, although Hays says a successful book could have earned the pair royalties.
Before he wrote letters, Reeves expressed his displeasure to Patriot-News editor Baden, who then called Robert M. Steele, director of ethics programs at the Poynter Institute. "I said, 'Bob, am I missing something here?' " Baden says.
Steele, who only agreed to discuss his consultation with Baden's blessing, says that "many a journalist and columnist has written books about politicians and candidates while also covering the election campaign process, and it can work." But, he says, it requires full disclosure between journalists and editors and between journalists, politicians and their aides.
In this case, Steele says, if the governor and the journalists had an agreement of complete disclosure, the governor would have had an obligation to tell the journalists about the withdrawal of his candidacy.
As for disclosure to readers, Steele says that he generally advises "err[ing] on the side of early revelation and more disclosure," but this particular situation "does not reach the threshold of obligation." He agrees with Baden that the timing of Reeves' complaint is questionable.
Foreman says that's missing the point. "What we should be doing, with all due respect, is avoiding any kind of plausible accusation of [an apparent] conflict of interest.... I think they left themselves open."