Thursday, February 21, 2008

Trading Places on West State Street

The news that Star-Ledger reporter Deborah Howlett is leaving her job covering Governor Corzine to take a job working for Corzine as his Communications Director raised eyebrows in Trenton this week, especially since it came on the heels of a similar decision by another high profile Ledger writer: Columnist Tom Moran is moving to PSE&G to do public policy work.

The raised eyebrows are understandable.

How is it possible to switch roles so quickly? To go from asking aggressive questions of the Governor and challenging his statements to answering those very same questions and defending his statements?

Are journalistic ethics being compromised by reporters who know they are about to take a job that will change their relationships with the organizations and individuals they cover?

New Jersey law prohibits officials from leaving government and immediately becoming lobbyists. Should we also close the revolving door between the Fourth Estate and state government?


From my perspective – as one whose career has included stints in both journalism and government public relations – I see no problem with the moves that Howlett, Moran and hundreds of other journalists have made.

Who better to serve in a communications and public relations role than someone who has firsthand experience about what make journalists tick?

More importantly, journalism is an industry whose members police themselves. By contrast, governments pass laws to strengthen ethics, but they often are ineffective. This is because no one can legislate morality. Where there is a will, there is a way. If someone wants to ignore an ethics law, they will.

Most news organizations have ethics codes or guidelines. And although they do not carry the force of law, they work. They work because by and large the individuals who have chosen to make journalism their careers value the principles and ideals of the profession.

Back in 1990 after I gave my editors at The News Tribune notice that I was leaving my job as a Statehouse Correspondent to work for the State Assembly, I spent my last two weeks at the paper writing a feature series on the New Jersey Lottery while much more interesting and controversial events were taking place in the Legislature.

In Howlett’s case, she told Gannett that she actually has spent more time covering the presidential election than the Governor's Office in recent weeks.

News organizations also have taken steps to prevent conflicts that may arise when spouses both have pubic identities, such as the Star-Ledger’s Robert Schwaneberg and his wife, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Helen Hoens.

The truth is the problems with journalism today – in New Jersey and throughout the nation – are not with individual reporters and editors. Instead, the issue we should be examining is how media consolidation and the drive for profit are impacting the quality of the news we receive.

Advance Publications, which owns the Star-Ledger, the Trenton Times and several other New Jersey newspapers, also owns many major magazines, including Bon Appetit, Glamour, GQ, Modern Bride and Vogue. Is the parent company shortchanging its New Jersey news operations because there is more profit to be made by investing in its high quality magazines?

Gannett, the parent company of the Asbury Park Press, owns the Army Times Publishing Company, which publishes a series of newspapers for members of the military and their families. Is there a connection between this military company and the crusading efforts of the Asbury Park Press to keep Fort Monmouth open?

The North Jersey Media Group, which owns the Bergen Record, the Herald and News, and a large group of weekly newspapers, appeals to potential advertisers by describing its market as “an area of unprecedented wealth and retail sales.” Does this mean issues that appeal to an upper-middle class and upper class demographic are more likely to be covered than those that are important to the working poor?

I am not suggesting that the answer to any of these questions is yes. But in order to preserve quality journalism and strengthen our democracy, these are the types of issues that should be researched and explored. They are much more important than debating where on West State Street any individual reporter -- or former reporter -- chooses to work.

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