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Squelching at the 'Star'

Reporters at the Arizona Daily Star have found one more reason to dislike their management. Says an anonymous Star employee--afraid of being sacked if linked to the latest gripe--"I, and other Star staffers, find it particularly odd and disturbing that an organization whose lifeblood is freedom of speech thinks nothing of stomping on the free-speech rights of its own employees."

At issue is the paper's policy on which political activities are proper for its reporters. The short version: Reporters are allowed to vote, but that's about it.

A posting by reader advocate Debbie Kornmiller on the Star's employees-only Web site riffs on a directive from the paper's Code of Ethics that states, "Do not take an active role in a political campaign or political organization. To do so would make you and the Star vulnerable to charges of favoritism." Also, the code warns, "If we expect readers to view us as credible, then we must aggressively seek and fully report the truth while remaining independent and free from any legitimate suggestion that our independence has been compromised."

This means, among other things:

· "Handing out literature at (a) rally or joining a candidate's phone bank most certainly would be seen as compromising your independence, even if it is behind-the-scene work."

· It is not acceptable to take part in a political march.

· It is not acceptable to post election signs in one's front yard, or put a political bumper sticker on a car that sits in the Star parking lot, even if that car is not driven out on assignment.

· Even simply attending a speech by a candidate "can be tricky," according to Kornmiller. "Most likely it will be photographed and televised, so talk to your editor first and weigh whether this could be construed as bias or as compromising your independence."

Political favoritism became a sensitive topic this summer when some journalists around the country were seen applauding at John Kerry stump speeches they were covering. Now, this is clearly bad form, and raises legitimate questions about a political reporter's objectivity. (Of course, true objectivity in journalism is a noble myth, but political reporters at least aren't supposed to make a show of their personal beliefs. Unless they are conservatives working for Rupert Murdoch.)

But is there really any harm in some sports reporter or music critic taking part in a political rally? Nobody complains that a political reporter who cheers at a basketball game is compromising the integrity of the sports department.

And, in the end, can we really trust a newspaper that forces its employees to pretend to have no opinions? For all their reliance on polling and focus groups, newsrooms are chronically out of touch with readers; of what value to the public are reporters who are required to remain disengaged from the major issues of the day, even on their own time?

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