I was a Young Republican when I was in college and briefly worked for Barry Goldwater for president. I worked at the same time in civil rights in South Nashville.
I am reminded of my past as I follow the criticism in recent weeks raised by Breitbart.com, NewsBusters, commentator Michelle Malkin and other Goldwater descendents against NPR reporter Peter Overby for not having sufficiently disclosed that he once worked for an affiliate of Common Cause.
In three stories last month on the American Legislative Exchange Council, Overby reported that Common Cause has been pushing the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the tax exempt charitable status of ALEC.
ALEC is the organization that brings together state legislators and corporate lobbyists to write and promote model state laws that further various conservative causes. These causes have included the cutting of corporate taxes, restricting unions, expanding voter ID, spreading Stand Your Ground gun laws and imposing Arizona-type illegal immigration restrictions.
Malkin, a Fox News contributor, asked her followers in a blog post to contact me and cite the "accountability" section of NPR's Ethics Handbook in reference to Overby's reporting role. Malkin referred to me as a "she," but no matter: she may have been thinking of my predecessor.
In reviewing the complaints, I find that they are partly right in criticizing Overby for labeling Common Cause as only a "good government group" in one of the stories. But the violation was a minor one in otherwise fair and accurate stories that bent over backwards to give ALEC time and space to counter-charge. Spokespeople for ALEC said that Common Cause and its "liberal" and "progressive" allies, as Overby himself called them, were ideologically motivated.
The complaints that I have read make no real argument with the substance or tone of the stories about ALEC. By directing their criticism at Overby's background, the critics appear to be aiming more at the fact that there were stories at all. If you don't like the message, in other words, shoot the messenger.
Some defenders of Overby maintain that the attacks are an attempt to divert attention from ALEC. I do not know the motivation of Malkin and the rest, but the questions they raise of whether Overby should have been allowed to report the story or should have made some special disclosure of his past are good ones. I have put them to a dozen disinterested colleagues and legal experts over the last week. All agree with Overby doing the stories, but they come down all over the place on disclosure.
So let me give you my reasoning for concluding that there was nothing wrong with Overby reporting the story and that no extra disclosure was necessary beyond what already exists as a matter of standard NPR practice.
Overby's byline on the Web versions of the stories, like that of all bylines, links to his bio, which states: "Before coming to NPR in 1994, Overby was senior editor at Common Cause Magazine, where he shared a 1992 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for magazine writing."
Is that enough? It's one click away for Web readers and not immediately accessible at all for radio listeners. NPR's new Ethics Handbook wisely doesn't set many specific rules but rather outlines principles for editors to consider in handling gray areas such as these. The handbook says:
It's not always easy to detect when something we have a personal or professional stake in might conflict — or appear to conflict — with our duty to report to the public the fullest truth we can. Conflicts of interest come in many shapes — financial holdings, romantic relationships, family ties, book deals, speaking engagements, and others. It's important to regularly review how our connections are entangled with the subjects of our reporting, and when necessary, to take action.
In minor cases, we might satisfy an apparent conflict by prominently disclosing it, and perhaps explaining to the public why it doesn't compromise our work. When presented with more significant conflicts that might affect our ongoing work, our best response is to avoid them. But some conflicts are unavoidable, and may require us to recuse ourselves from certain coverage...
All NPR journalists, including those of us who work for the arts and music desks, must tell our supervisors in advance about potential conflicts of interest. When first assigned to cover or work on a matter, disclose to your immediate supervisors any business, commercial, financial or personal interests where such interests might reasonably be construed as being in actual, apparent or potential conflict with our duties...
Overby's previous experience and reporting award were common knowledge among editors. Indeed, they were among the reasons why he was given the reporting position and title, Power, Money and Influence Correspondent. His bio adds lightly: "Some of his lobbyist sources call it the best job title in Washington."
Managing Editor David Sweeney wrote me:
There is no issue here. Peter last worked for Common Cause magazine 18 years ago. That is disclosed on his online bio—on the NPR website—and has been for some time. There was no discussion prior to Peter reporting this story—the latest in a series he has done on ALEC—about whether there were any potential perceived conflicts, let alone any actual ones. Peter has demonstrated in his reporting on ALEC and other political fundraising coverage that he is a straight up, very good correspondent reporting on a central issue of the 2012 election campaign cycle.
Unsaid was that two years after Overby left, the magazine was shut down after simmering tensions with its parent Common Cause, according to an article in the American Journalism Review at the time.
I personally wouldn't have cared if Overby had worked directly for Common Cause itself. One of my complaints about journalism today is that it has become like a caste in which too many journalists have no experience in anything else in life, separating them from ordinary Americans and inculcating attitudes of arrogance. What counts is not a journalist's background, but whether she or he can identify personal biases and be fair in reporting. Each of us has scores of potential biases.
Eighteen years has given Overby a lot of extra time to overcome any bias he might have for or against Common Cause. It never occurs to me to divulge my long ago Goldwater past; I dare anyone to use that and my civil rights work to predict my position on issues today. Most of us can probably make similar claims. I agree with Sweeney that whatever Overby may feel about his long-ago employer, it does not show up in his reporting.
But what of disclosure as a way to maintain audience trust because of a mere appearance of conflict of interest? This is one reason for the posted bios. My feeling is that if Overby were so identified with Common Cause that still more disclosure seemed necessary, then he shouldn't be assigned to the story in the first place.
More important than Overby himself, moreover, is the editing system that surrounds him. Editors and producers are stacked on top of reporters to ensure that stories are scrubbed clean of bias. This faceless team behind the scene holds the ultimate responsibility for what goes on air and online. Even with added disclosures, it is still this system at NPR that listeners at some point have to decide that they trust or not. So far, most of us trust it.
None of this is to say that mistakes don't happen or biases don't seep through. They do. The system is made up of fallible humans. This is why NPR has an ombudsman and listener complaints are posted and investigated separately by me and editors every day.
Labelling Common Cause as merely a "good government group" was one of those mistakes, it seems to me, though I can understand it.
Common Cause was founded in 1970 by a former Republican congressman, John Gardner, in those halcyon days of bipartisan innocence when we all called the organization a "good government group." Its founding cause was transparency in government so that citizens know how decisions are made and can participate.
The organization, however, has since aligned with liberal groups on many issues, in part because conservatives have largely abandoned favorite Common Cause issues such as campaign finance restrictions. The group's current president, Bob Edgar, is a former Democratic congressman with a bit of a halo image on ethics as former general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ.
Overby defends his labeling:
I have an approach to deciding how to identify groups. I try to frame stories like these in the liberal-conservative context, and then use the most specific phrases possible to identify the groups involved. Common Cause is specifically a good government group (using the established term covering ethics, campaign finance and such issues), the same way the Sierra Club is an environmental group or the Tea Party movement is about lower taxes and smaller government.
For a while now, I've been looking to see if Common Cause's changes in leadership have changed its focus, made it more broadly liberal like, say, People for the American Way. Haven't found a good answer yet....One of its big funders last year was conservative businessman Tom Golisano, a founder of the Perot-inspired Independence Party of NY.
All advocacy groups use the same strategy, portraying themselves as aggrieved victims of monolithic attacks. I believe my job is to start with that and then add depth.
His response shows a sense of deliberate care, but the political landscape has so polarized in recent decades, with Common Cause in the thick of the fight, that the "good government" label is too rosy. Many conservative advocacy groups—from the Tea Party to the National Rifle Association—see themselves as promoting "good government." Some elements of transparency, meanwhile, have arguably contributed to the hyper polarization of today by denying legislators the ability to compromise in back-room or face-saving deals, which may not be so good.
A review of other mainstream news media finds that they, too, appear to be struggling with what to call Common Cause. In recent weeks, The Washington Post has used "reform advocacy organization" and "government watchdog." The Wall Street Journal has referred to it as one of many "reform groups." The New York Times said "watchdog group" and Bloomberg came in with the most detailed description: "a Washington-based political ethics watchdog group." I wonder if "liberal" shouldn't have been added to all of them.
But let's be clear here: the subject in Overby's stories is not Common Cause, but ALEC.
His stories have been part of an ongoing focus by all news organizations on ALEC since the killing in Florida of an unarmed 17-year-old boy, Trayvon Martin, by a man whose defense is the Stand Your Ground law. Few of us in the general public had any idea of ALEC's powerful role in propagating this and many other state laws in recent years. This role is certainly worth reporting, whether you agree with the laws or not.
The complaint by Common Cause, filed under the Tax Whistleblower Act, will force the IRS to investigate whether ALEC is a charity or in fact a lobbying organization. The classification is important because charitable donations are tax deductible while contributing to a lobbying organization is not. Overby reported that 99 percent of ALEC's $7 million annual budget is funded by its private members, most of them corporations. The many state legislators who are members pay the tiny balance.
If ALEC is a lobbying group, then we as taxpayers have been helping fund it, while losing the corporate taxes that should be paid alongside our own to help maintain government services.
It is not for me to say how ALEC should be registered, but as a matter of news judgment there is no doubt that the tax status complaint, no matter who brought it, is newsworthy and legitimate. Washington is filled with non-profit organizations that seek to influence legislation for their favorite cause and are registered all or in part as lobbying groups. There is nothing unusual or punitive about this. Common Cause itself is registered as a lobbyist.
Overby reported all this in a straightforward fashion, with no tendentious tone or slant. His third story gave ALEC more time than Common Cause to make its case. Meanwhile, a dozen or more corporations have quit ALEC since the furor over corporate funding erupted. ALEC itself has shut down its task force on public safety and elections.
These are the three Overby reports referred to above:
Boycotts Hitting Group Behind 'Stand Your Ground', April 5, 2012
Conservative Group's Charity Status Draws Questions, April 19, 2012
Charity Status Of Conservative Group Challenged, April 23, 2012
Lori Grisham contributed to this report.