A Bay Area newspaper reporter’s recent demand that Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums resign has sparked some heated discussions in newsrooms across the region about the proper role of journalists. It also raises issues of ethics, political activism, and conflicts of interest in the era of media consolidation.
Last month, Elise Ackerman, a technology reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, e-mailed what she called an “open letter” to the mayor urging him to step down. Ackerman is an Oakland resident who is extremely frustrated about the city’s vexing crime problem, especially in her neighborhood near Lake Merritt.
She also recently purchased the domain name RecallMayorDellums.com. She said she intended to launch a Web site and chose the provocative name in the hope that it would inspire Oakland residents to openly discuss tough issues facing the city and become more politically active. As of earlier this week, the Web site had not launched.
Regardless, it’s Ackerman’s explosive e-mail that is now garnering attention, which she apparently wanted, because she sent copies of it to Express editor Stephen Buel and San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phil Matier, Andrew Ross, and Chip Johnson. The letter is extremely critical of the mayor, whom she blames for the city’s rising crime rate. She also calls him a liar and “a disgrace,” and complains about the police department being woefully understaffed and lacking basic equipment.
“I don’t blame the police investigators,” she wrote to Dellums. “They came back from a tour of duty in Iraq and immediately started trying to save the children of Oakland. A frightening number of their active cases include children who were abused yesterday, are being abused today, and will be abused tomorrow thanks to your lack of action.”
She added later: “African Americans and Latinos live in fear in Oakland because of your lies. Middle-class residents working two jobs live in fear because of your lies. Nurses, teachers and social workers live in fear because of your lies.” Near the end of the e-mail, she added: “You are not effective, you are not honest, you have no integrity and you should step aside.”
Top Mercury News editors would not comment on Ackerman’s e-mail or her purchase of the domain name. Ackerman also wouldn’t say whether her editors talked to her about it after the Oakland Tribune reported late last month that she had purchased the domain name.
In an interview with Full Disclosure, Ackerman’s anger at Dellums was obvious, and she issued a challenge to this reporter and others in the East Bay to turn a more critical eye on him and the crime problem. “The larger issue is whether journalists are going to step up for their community, or are they going to be silent?” she said.
But she also was contrite, expressing remorse for her actions. “I did step over the line, and I’m sorry about that,” she said, but then later explained herself by adding: “I did it because people are bleeding in my neighborhood on the ground.”
Not everyone in journalism agrees that Ackerman committed an ethical lapse, nor that she created a conflict of interest for her newspaper. John McManus, a journalism lecturer at San Jose State University and director of Grade the News, a Web site that often publishes stories about ethical issues, believes a reporter can be politically active — even call for a mayor’s resignation — as long it doesn’t interfere with her coverage.
Journalists, after all, enjoy First Amendment rights like anyone else. “My view is that if she doesn’t cover anything to do with Dellums or with the city of Oakland, then a conflict doesn’t exist for her,” McManus said.
He also thinks Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein was wrong to fire tech reporter Henry Norr in 2003 after Norr was arrested in an anti-Iraq War demonstration. At the time, Chron management claimed Norr was canned for allegedly falsifying his timecard, but it was clear that what really angered Bronstein was Norr’s overt political activism.
The Norr firing sparked much debate among journalists and prompted some news organizations to rethink their codes of ethics or reexamine whether they should adopt some (the Express has no published code). The toughest code in the business may belong to the New York Times. It strictly prohibits reporters from any political activism on the grounds that Times reporters represent the newspaper, so if they take a public stand on an issue, it creates questions of bias not just for them, but also for the Times. (Most newspapers apply different rules to columnists, who are expected to openly express their opinions).
Cynthia Gorney, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and former longtime reporter for the Washington Post, believes conflict-of-interest questions should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Gorney thinks Norr went too far — and that Ackerman may have too. It’s okay, she said, for reporters to vote, have opinions, maybe even sign a petition. But when they go public, that’s a different story. “Does she have the right as a resident to be angry at her mayor? Of course,” Gorney said of Ackerman. “Should she be writing letters to the editor about it? Probably not.”
So could the Mercury News discipline Ackerman, or even fire her, were she to continue her public campaign against Dellums? Gorney points to a 1997 case from the Washington Supreme Court involving a journalist at a Tacoma newspaper. In that case, Sandra Nelson, an education reporter, was heavily involved in gay-rights causes. When she refused to curtail her public activism, the McClatchy-owned newspaper made her a copy editor.
Nelson then sued under a state law that prohibited employers from punishing employees for practicing their free-speech rights. But the high court ruled for the newspaper, saying its First Amendment rights trumped Nelson’s. The newspaper, the court ruled, had a right to present itself to its community in the way it saw fit, and the court would be trampling on that right if it forced the paper to transfer Nelson back to her reporting post.
But how could Ackerman’s activism create conflict-of-interest problems for the Merc, which doesn’t even cover Oakland? Fourteen months ago, perhaps, it wouldn’t even have been an issue, but when MediaNews, owner of the Trib, purchased the Merc in August 2006 and immediately began sharing resources and stories between the papers, the Merc, in effect, started covering Oakland. In fact, Trib stories now regularly appear in the Merc and vice-versa. A review of online archives found that at least eight Ackerman stories appeared in the Trib in the past year.
Full Disclosure agrees that Ackerman crossed the line with her emotional attack on the mayor. But her anger also was misdirected. No matter what you may think of him, Ron Dellums is not responsible for the crime spike — he’s only been in office ten months. The rise in crime clearly occurred under ex-mayor Jerry Brown. Though it’s not as if Brown didn’t respond. In 2002, he attempted to hire one hundred new cops by floating a ballot measure, but Oakland residents soundly rejected his idea.
Rising crime is a complicated problem, and the reality is that a majority of Oakland’s voters don’t believe putting more cops on the street is the best solution. Ackerman, in other words, is at really odds with her neighbors. So if she wants to be mad, she should be mad at them.