Tuesday, August 24, 2004

NY Times political reporter writes unwitting self-parody

Note: Read the update at the bottom of this posting including the explanatory letter from the New York Times.

Update: Read my apology to Mr. Slackman here.

New York Times political reporter Michael Slackman recently published an article criticizing a Republican National Convention organizer for having a potential conflict of interest because he is also a lobbyist. (Note that the subject of the article is not accused of doing anything illegal, secretive or in violation of any written policy.)

Turns out Mr. Slackman has his own conflict of interest to deal with. In direct violation of New York Times ethical guidelines, Mr. Slackman has donated money to a Democratic cause (in New York, no less) while reporting on politics in New York.

I have reprinted Mr. Slackman's article here. Intertwined, I have re-written the article, using many of Mr. Slackman's words; but this time the subject is Mr. Slackman himself and his conflict of interest. The original article is printed in black; my re-write appears in purple.

Convention Boss's Other Hat: Lobbying G.O.P. for Defense Clients

Published: August 21, 2004

For more than a year David Norcross has been a key player for the Bush-Cheney campaign in organizing the Republican National Convention. Mr. Norcross has hired the convention's chief executive, headed the committee responsible for guiding decisions on everything from transportation to entertainment and helped make arrangements for the delegations coming to New York.

NY Times Political Reporter's Other Hat: Donating Funds to Democrats

Published: August 24, 2004

For more than a year Michael Slackman has been a key political journalist for such influential papers as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. As a political reporter for the New York Times, Mr. Slackman recently reported on such politically charged issues as potential conflicts of interest by the organizer of the upcoming Republican National Convention in New York.

But Mr. Norcross wears more than one hat.

But Mr. Slackman wears more than one hat.

At the same time that he has held this inside-the-party position with access to top government officials, he has also been lobbying the Bush administration on behalf of clients like Raytheon, the defense contractor. Mr. Norcross lobbied the Department of Defense, the Department of the Treasury, the Senate and the House, all on behalf of Raytheon, while he has been the chairman of the convention, according to records on file with the secretary of the Senate.

At the same time that he has held this influential position reporting on top government officials for arguably the most influential newspaper in the country, he has also been donating funds to Democratic causes. Mr. Slackman donated money to the New York State Democratic Committee, a partisan organization which actively promotes such ideas as "Republicans failing New York," while he was covering New York politics for the New York Times, according to records on file with the Federal Election Commission. A copy of the the FEC form (Schedule A, Form 3X)detailing Mr. Slackman's contribution and his employer is available online.

There is nothing illegal about Mr. Norcross taking on both jobs at the same time, especially since his role at the convention is a party position, not a government one. In the past, party chairmen with far greater access to the White House than Mr. Norcross, including the former Republican National Committee chairman, Haley Barbour, and the onetime Democratic National Committee chairman, Ron Brown, have also simultaneously been affiliated with lobbying firms.

There is nothing illegal about Mr. Slackman taking on both roles at the same time, especially since his role as a reporter is a private position, not a government one. In the past, journalists with far greater funds available than Mr. Slackman have also simultaneously donated money to political parties while covering political events.

But Mr. Norcross's dual roles come after Congress has sought to limit corporate influence in politics with stiffer campaign finance laws. But those laws have had the unintended effect of exaggerating the already considerable influence of corporate interests in the Democratic and Republican conventions.

But Mr. Slackman's dual roles come after the New York Times' public editor acknowledged in his column that, "of course" the paper is liberal and that "readers with a different worldview will find The Times an alien beast."

"Look, this is how this system works," said Fred Wertheimer, executive director of Democracy 21, a Washington-based group that helped push through changes to the campaign finance laws. "These conventions are the oasis, the last remaining watering hole. They are the ultimate mixer for office holders, lobbyists, corporate and other special interests and big money guys."

And within that environment, Mr. Norcross works at the highest level as a lobbyist representing companies like Boeing and the biotechnology company 20/20 GeneSystems Inc., which is based in Rockville, Md. Mr. Norcross's employer, the Washington-based law firm Blank Rome and its lobbying subsidiary, highlights his party credential in Mr. Norcross's official biography posted on its Web site.

Mr. Slackman works at the highest level as a political journalist. His employer, the New York Times, has won 111 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization. He has also reported for the Los Angeles Times on political hot-button issues such as the Iraq War.

"Mr. Norcross is a member of the board of directors of Blank Rome Government Relations L.L.C., and was recently appointed chairman of the Republican National Convention's Committee on Arrangements for the 2004 Republican National Convention, to be held in New York City,'' the company Web site says. "His practice focuses on legislative affairs, legislative and executive department liaison, lobbying, advocacy programs and public affairs."

Mr. Slackman reported last May on corporate donors "rolling out the red carpet" for the Republican National Convention. He sounded a cautionary note on political contributions in relaying the sentiment of Fred Wertheimer, executive director of Democracy 21, that the "fundamental problem here is the interest gets to do a huge financial favor for a powerful member of Congress who they often have critical issues pending before."

While such mingling of politics and lobbying has been de rigueur, in recent years some have tried to avoid even the suggestion of any kind of conflict. Ed Gillespie, for example, the chairman of the R.N.C., said he would stop working with his Washington lobbying firm when he took over the party. And William Harris, the man Mr. Norcross hired as chief executive of the convention, also stopped lobbying while working on the convention, a spokesman said.

While mingling of journalism and political contributions has become more commonplace, in recent years some have tried to avoid even the suggestion of any kind of conflict.

In January 2003 (as reported by the Baltimore Sun), the New York Times adopted a policy expressly forbidding staff from making political donations. Mr. Slackman's gift to the New York State Democratic Committee appears to contradict directly his employer's handbook on ethical journalism, which reads in part as follows:

"Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics. Staff members... must do nothing that might raise questions about their professional neutrality or that of The Times....

"Staff members may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides." [Emphasis added.]

"The mores have progressed to the point where it makes people uncomfortable," said Stanley Brand, a Washington-based lawyer who has counseled lawmakers on ethics. "It's not against the law but it brings criticism to people."

Mr. Norcross is a longtime political insider who ran unsuccessfully in New Jersey for the United States Senate, has been counsel to the Republican National Committee and is a national committeeman from New Jersey. He refused repeated requests to be interviewed. Leonardo Alcivar, a spokesman for the convention, said Mr. Norcross was too busy with the convention to speak about his job. Mr. Alcivar also said Mr. Norcross was working only part-time on the convention, and was spending the rest of his days in his lobbying firm's New York office.


Disclosure: David M, a registered Republican, has given money to candidates of both major parties.

Update: I e-mailed Daniel Okrent, the Times' public editor, about this issue and received an automated reply stating that one of his colleagues would handle my message since he is on vacation.

Michael Petrelis e-mailed the Times' VP of corporate communications about the same issue this morning and received this reply:

Dear Mr. Petrelis,

Mr. Slackman paid $245 to the Democratic State Committee for a phone line to use in filing his stories. The fee was incorrectly listed as a contribution. The Democratic State Committee quickly acknowledged its mistake and sent us a letter to that effect.


Catherine Mathis
VP, Corporate Communications
The New York Times Company
212-556-1981 (office)
917-593-7425 (cell)

I withdraw my criticism.