If A Supposedly 'Unbiased Journalist' Takes Cash From The Government, Would You Trust His Balance And Integrity?
By Jim Carvalho
JOURNALIST AND MEDIA critic Alexander Cockburn once wrote, "Today, the final vestiges of critical thought in the press have been all but extinguished, and mainstream journalists are as much a part of the ruling class as the political and business elite." Cockburn was referring to the five-figure speakers' fees paid to Washington journalists by organizations that have a vested interest in stories the journalists are covering. Here in Tucson, no local journalist pulls down five-figure speakers' fees, but two, John Patterson and Sally Shamrell, earn second incomes from the City of Tucson, raising serious concerns over possible conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
Patterson and Shamrell both moonlight for the City of Tucson's Cable Channel 12, which broadcasts City Council and County Supervisors meetings, as well as programs like Topic of Tucson, Local Matters and others, which defend the status quo at taxpayer expense.
Shamrell, who works as a reporter for Tucson's NBC affiliate, KVOA, collects a second paycheck for her work as the host of Channel 12's City News. She collects $50 in taxpayer funds for each five-minute segment she hosts, but she sees no conflict of interest. "At KVOA, I rarely do the city beat," she says, "and on City News, I read stories that mainstream media would not have time to cover, things like neighborhood meetings and festivals."
On the same day a reporter spoke to Shamrell, however, City News presented segments on police recruiting, the conflict between Tucson and Phoenix over allocation of tax funds, and the city's efforts to renovate the downtown train station.
Shamrell's boss at KVOA, Mick Jensen, sees no conflict of interest and has no problem with Shamrell's checks from the City of Tucson. "I guess I'm not troubled by it. Sally discussed it with me before she was given permission," he says.
Patterson, a reporter for Tucson's ABC affiliate, KGUN, is the host of Channel 12's Assignment Tucson, a weekly hour-long program focusing on the Tucson Police Department (TPD) and local law enforcement issues. Patterson is paid $225 for each one-hour program he hosts, and receives additional compensation for voice-overs on other Channel 12 programs. According to TPD, half of Assignment Tucson's annual $70,000 budget comes from the city's General Fund. The other $35,000 comes from TPD's Crime Prevention Office.
That means John Patterson is paid by two organizations--the City of Tucson and TPD--which have a vested interest in stories he reports on for KGUN. Patterson sees no reason for concern, though.
"Is there a conflict of interest? Absolutely not," he says. "I'm a fair and unbiased journalist. I approach everything from the standpoint of being as fair and objective as possible."
Patterson's boss at KGUN, News Director Forrest Carr, believes Patterson's involvement with Assignment Tucson is no different than the traditional relationship between beat reporters and their sources. He sees no conflict of interest. "John Patterson has covered stories (at KGUN) that are not in TPD's best interest. He has never, ever suggested that we not do a story because it might be negative on the city or TPD. He has proposed stories that are negative and has pursued them aggressively."
Carr says he carefully reviewed Patterson's Channel 12 job offer before allowing him to accept the job. "The questions (about conflict of interest) are legitimate. We ask them of ourselves. We talked about these issues, and we continue to talk about them.
"KGUN has done more than any other station in this community to establish lines of communication with our viewers. We have a viewer ombudsman, Heylie Eigen, and as far as I know, we are the only station in the U.S. who does. If our viewers get a perception there's a conflict of interest, we'll act on it.
"If it becomes a concern in the community, John Patterson's involvement with Assignment Tucson will end. But that would be unfortunate for Tucson. It's a worthwhile program." Carr also says Patterson's Channel 12 job meets the requirements of KGUN's station policy guidelines regarding outside employment, but he would not make those guidelines available to The Weekly.
In sharp contrast to Carr and Jensen, Carolyn Kane, news director of Tucson's CBS affiliate, KOLD, says, "We'd never allow someone (from KOLD) to work for someone else, and especially not for anyone we cover. We have to cover the police."
Professor Jacqueline Sharkey, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Arizona and writes extensively on ethics issues for American Journalism Review, is critical of the relationship between Patterson and Channel 12. "This is a clear conflict of interest," she says. "Mr. Patterson has clearly compromised his objectivity. One of the fundamental tenets of objective journalism is that you don't accept money from people or organizations you're covering. People say, 'I can put these issues aside; it doesn't affect my objectivity,' but a journalist should never put himself in that position. He shouldn't take money from the people he's covering."
The fact that Patterson and Shamrell are paid by the government, as opposed to private entities, is additionally troubling. "One of the fundamental values of the First Amendment is the right or duty to report on or be critical of government," says Jim Calle, a Tucson attorney who teaches a course in Law and the Media at the UA. "Inherent in that value is the duty to be as critical as possible. Collecting a paycheck from the government lessens your credibility. There's certainly a perception of impropriety," Calle says.
Sharkey, too, is critical of the government paychecks. "The idea that lies at the foundation of the First Amendment is that there should be a firewall between the press and the government," she says. "This kind of relationship is an effort to circumvent the idea that there should be a wall between government and the media. It's not illegal, but it's a way for government to influence media without regulating it."
And what about Carr's assertion that Patterson's relationship with Assignment Tucson is not unlike the standard relationship between beat reporters and their sources? "That makes a mockery of the idea of journalistic independence," Sharkey says. "The idea that Mr. Patterson's relationship with Assignment Tucson is no different than the relationship between beat reporters and their sources is ridiculous. The argument defies logic. Good beat reporters don't take money from their sources. This is not even a gray area. It's a no-brainer. The people at KGUN need to study the history of the First Amendment and why we have one."
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