The Chronicle’s letters editor, William Pates, went on leave last week after Grade the News, a regional media watchdog based at Stanford University, revealed Pates had made donations to Kerry and to three local Democrats.
The newspaper has a policy prohibiting journalists from giving money to campaigns without first consulting top editors.
The Chronicle’s editorial page editor John Diaz, who is a regular guest on the NewsHour, told Grade the News that Pates had never notified him of his political contributions.
“He’s on paid leave while we are investigating; we have not made any judgment at this point as to whether the policy was violated,” Diaz said.
“It would be a concern to have somebody who is involved in selecting letters make what amounts to a public demonstration of support for a particular candidate” which would undermine the paper’s credibility with its readers, Diaz said.
Pates was removed from editing letters to the editor, not as a disciplinary action, but to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, Diaz told the Online NewsHour. His new assignment has not yet been determined.
“The Chronicle policy is very clear that this would be out of bounds,” he added.
But Pates said he was surprise by the paper’s action because he is not involved in news coverage as a member of the Chronicle’s editorial page staff.
“Our policy is rather vague on the matter of conflicts of interest and ethics, and I didn’t think that it applied to me,” Pates told the Associated Press. Pates has worked for the Chronicle for 35 years.
Diaz said there should be no distinction in how conflict of interest rules apply to opinion page staffers and the news staff, but acknowledged that others at the paper disagreed with that view.
Chronicle Vice President and Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal told Grade the News that Pates’ position as an editor made his contributions especially sensitive.
“He’s a gatekeeper,” Rosenthal said. “If he was a food writer or a sports writer I don’t think there would be an issue here. He controls the content of the paper in some form. He controls very opinionated content that has to do frequently with politics.”
Pates’ suspension inadvertently resulted from Grade the News’ survey of political donations made by Bay Area journalists. Grade the News writer Michael Stoll first called Pates to inquire about his political contributions as part of his broader article on newsroom policies on campaign donation. After Pates forwarded Stoll’s message to his editors, the paper relieved him of his duties until conclusion of an internal inquiry.
The Grade the News study also found that reporters, editors and publishers in more than a dozen local newsrooms — including the Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and the Wall Street Journal — had written checks to political candidates or registered political groups.
Bob Steele, a journalistic ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, noted that while news organizations could establish their own policies regarding conflict of interest, the rules regarding political donations should be clear and universal.
“Making a political contribution is a form of activism, and journalists shouldn’t be activists,” Steele told the AP. “The standard should apply to all those who practice journalism.”
Yet, the Chronicle’s policy on campaign donations may also face a legal challenge in California’s state labor code, which prohibits an employer from preventing its employees from “engaging or participating in politics … or directing … the political activities or affiliations of employees.”