Don Rogers: Why we can’t say no
February 15, 2018
Well, this is a first.
I've never had a newspaper colleague decide to run for an elective office, until now. Not where the news staff alone numbered over 150, not at any of nine papers between here and upstate New York. Not in 32 years.
I knew journalists who left their papers or radio or TV stations to do this, and some who flirted with the idea. Once, a county reporter teased me about running for the Colorado equivalent of supervisor — maybe there'd be better decisions then in those chambers, he huffed. "But then I lay down for 15 minutes and the idea went away," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "Besides, I do kind of like my job."
A former sales guy ran for a local town council seat. He got into trouble with his bright idea to put election stickers on our news boxes. Somehow he thought it would be OK since he once worked at the paper.
People occasionally have suggested I run, always as a dig at me presuming to know so much about how the real leaders ought to do their jobs. Advice comes easily to us pundits, after all, lounging in the cheap seats, passing judgment like bags of peanuts at a ball game.
"Fortunately my job prevents me even if I were foolish enough to be tempted," I'd say.
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But at least in California, I'm wrong about that. According to the Labor Code in this state, I could indeed run and my company couldn't do a thing about it short of pioneering a First Amendment case. At least that's what our legal counsel has advised.
Here's what the relevant parts of the code say:
California Labor Code 1101: No employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy … [f]orbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or from becoming candidates for public office …
California Labor Code 1102: No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity.
This had been so clear to me until now: You want to serve in elected office? Great. It was a pleasure working with you. Good luck in your quest.
The issue isn't so much the paper as bogeyman taking control over state and media, even if an owner or publisher did the unthinkable and the voters went along with it.
The problem is more subtle, I think. Can the reporting on a race be trusted when one of the paper's own is a candidate? There's enough second-guessing among supporters and rivals about this stuff anyway.
I can tell you I hate the very idea.
Maybe I'm just another purist too well steeped from decades in the newsroom. News people just don't do that sort of thing.
The New York Times, like my company's policy, forbids journalists from running for office, as loyal critic Jeff Pelline notes in his Sierra Foothills Report.
But Mary Anne Davis doesn't work in the news department. She's our events director and manager of nonprofit sales.
Even at The Times, things get a lot squishier outside the newsroom. Their policy clearly states right at the top that it doesn't apply to other departments, and less stringently than our policy, not to everyone in their news department.
The only other feedback I got this week on the topic came in a message from a caller who questioned my statement in the announcement story that I preferred employees not run for elective office: "If I were an employee of your newspaper, I guess I wouldn't like the fact my ultimate boss would look down on the fact I wanted to become publicly engaged. Just doesn't seem like something that makes sense. Seems to make more sense to say I encourage our people to apply and run for public office, and as the publisher I need to make absolutely sure they receive the same fair treatment as the other candidates. That seems like a much more community positive response."
The caller makes a good point, though I disagree with it, for advertising, circulation and finance department employees removed from the news staff. They don't have anything to do with the news, much as some in advertising might like to influence coverage when a prime account gets caught up in a scandal or crime that costs the sales people and the paper directly.
Other departments can't influence the newsroom when it comes to our own pecuniary interests, sometimes significantly so. What makes anyone think they'll change how we cover an employee's bid for office?
I don't resent Mary Anne, who is a great colleague in all ways and does her work well.
Still, I do wish she'd take those proverbial 15 minutes to reconsider.
If she were to win, she would leave The Union for a new job. And we'd hate to lose her.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 477-4299.
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