Stribulations: Ethics, The Boss, And The Newspaper Of The Twin Cities

On September 3, Scott Gillespie, the managing editor of the Star Tribune, fired off a note to newsroom employees that amounted to this: For those about to rock, we don't salute you. More precisely, Gillespie instructed his underlings that they should not attend Bruce Springsteen's upcoming concert and anti-Bush fundraiser at the Xcel Energy Center. Further, Gillespie pronounced that it "isn't acceptable" for staffers to display political lawn signs at their homes or bumper stickers on their vehicles.

Why the killjoy attitude? Gillespie and other Strib managers have become increasingly dismayed over expressions of partisanship by newsroom employees, including a "proliferation" of bumper stickers in the company parking lot. One unnamed editor, Gillespie reported in his note, felt compelled to complain after overhearing a staff member mock the views of a speaker at one of the political conventions. (If you can find a newsroom where these speeches aren't mocked, call the coroner, because all the reporters must be dead). "It should be obvious," Gillespie harrumphed, "that we can't engage in campaign activities."

Gillespie's edict did not sit well with his minions. In a written response sent to the paper's human resources department, Newspaper Guild Twin Cities Unit executive officer Mike Sweeney denounced Gillespie's "unilateral communication" as a violation of federal labor law. If the company tries to enforce the new rules without first negotiating with the Guild, Sweeney vowed to resist the implementation of the new rules "to the fullest extent possible."

In a separate staff-wide e-mail, three Strib workers noted that the paper's insistence on cultivating an appearance of neutrality apparently does not extend to its "marketing partnerships with various sporting and cultural activities." The latter is a barbed reference to the paper's sponsorship of conservative evangelist Luis Palau's recent revival in St. Paul, which--along with barrelfuls of ink devoted to covering the event--caused considerable grumbling in the newsroom.

Of course, the Star Tribune's insistence that its reporters conceal their political beliefs is hardly unusual. The New York Times ethics code explicitly forbids newsroom employees from displaying lawns signs or bumper stickers; other papers strongly discourage employees from participating in activities normally associated with engaged citizenship. Acting on their own, some journalists even refuse to vote.

All this is built on one of mainstream journalism's more peculiar pieties--the idea that the press cannot function properly unless the general public perceives reporters as neutral observers. That would make sense, except pretty much everyone recognizes that reporters are, in fact, highly opinionated people. The notion of reporter objectivity is, at the end of the day, all about maintaining appearances.

That the Strib would make such overtures in newsroom memos is not surprising, but it does contain a certain amount of hypocrisy. (And in this case, an overreaching sensitivity in politically charged times.) After all, journalists routinely insist that the objects of their coverage--politicians, business people, celebrities--"disclose" biases and affiliations. Why shouldn't they do the same?