Thursday, October 27th, 2016

The limits of political activity


Erik Gunn, writing for, asks but does not answer how involved the staff of news organizations can get in political activity before crossing a line.

“Just like their colleagues on the news side of the Journal Sentinel, members of the Editorial Board may not be involved in political activities of any kind,” Haynes tells me. “That includes signing a recall petition, placing a sign in their yard or otherwise advocating in the political arena. Our role as opinion writers does not relieve us of this requirement: We must be fair and open-minded as we approach the issues of the day. Any participation in politics by Editorial Board members would taint our efforts to approach the issues in an even-handed fashion. Participating in political activity sends our readers the message that we’ve already made up our minds.”

Interestingly, that ethic may actually be more widespread than you’d think. Earlier this year, when I was profiling Tommy Thompson’s Senate race for Isthmus in Madison, I briefly corresponded with a conservative blogger and writer for some insight. In passing, I asked whether he was in any way involved with the campaign of Thompson or any of his GOP rivals. James Wigderson said categorically that he now stays out of direct political involvement: “Hard to write about a campaign objectively if you’re stuck in the middle of it.”

(Which may help explain why Wigderson took such umbrage at recent blog commentary insinuating he’s still involved in active campaign work.)

For others, though, it’s more ambiguous. Is signing a petition more of a private act, akin to voting? Or, even if it isn’t, should whatever prohibition that might understandably apply to news reporters and editors be extended to personnel in other areas of the company – such as advertising sales people or circulation clerks? It’s worth noting that according to the Appleton memo, none of the signing employees “are news reporters or assigning news editors.”

I give good quote.

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