Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reporter on NYT McCain Hit Piece Also Targeted McConnell

A co-author of the New York Times' hit piece on John McCain's supposed scandals previously authorized a screed against Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell that has since been criticized on ethical grounds by the American Journalism Review.

While working as an editor at the Lexington Herald-Leader, Marilyn Thompson solicited and accepted a grant to fund an "investigative" series about McConnell. The grant came from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which was funded by the liberal Deer Creek Foundation -- an organization that had financed litigation against McConnell regarding campaign finance.

The AJR notes that:

In 2006, as editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, Marilyn W. Thompson wanted her paper to undertake a major project examining Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell's political fundraising practices and suggestions of influence peddling. When she realized her lean newsroom budget alone wouldn't cover it, Thompson got her Knight Ridder bosses' enthusiastic approval to seek a grant from the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. The California-based center provided $37,500 to underwrite the salary of reporter John Cheves, who took an unpaid six-month leave of absence to do the project, as well as to cover expenses.

Following publication of the series on McConnell, Thompson left the Lexington Herald-Leader for the Los Angeles Times. And the Herald-Leader was purchased by McClatchy. After reviewing the funding for the series, McClatchy's vice president for news, Howard Weaver, decided to return the grant. Weaver said at the time, "I just think that the relationship [with the outside groups] was sufficiently unorthodox that we don't need to do it."

The pay-for-play funding of the McConnell series, and the controversy it generated, caused the Center for Investigative Reporting to change its procedures, according to the AJR:

The incident made a lasting impression at the center. While there always has been "a complete firewall" between editorial and fundraising, since then "we have made the case more strenuously to funders that we would prefer general operating support as opposed to project-specific support," says Christa Scharfenberg, the center's associate director. (Funding for the McConnell project had come from money Deer Creek had designated for campaign finance coverage.)

When a foundation provides a grant to a journalist, there is a risk, AJR cautions, that "raises concerns about editorial objectivity and whether it has been compromised by a funder." That risk increases where, as in the McConnell series, the grant maker specifies the topic.

After Thompson, the former Herald-Leader editor, left for the LA Times, she then went to the New York Times; thus her byline on the McCain piece. Note, however, that Thompson is the only reporter on the McCain piece whose byline does not include a hyperlink.

Here's why. Thompson left the New York Times to go to the Washington Post, apparently after working on the McCain piece, but before it was published. Consequently,the Post was able to respond to the New York Times McCain piece today -- the same day the New York Times published the McCain piece. Thompson had spent only six months at the Times and authored just four bylines, according to the New Republic.

The Post announced last week that Thompson will serve as "new Washington accountability editor on the National Desk." In that capacity, Thompson will "lead the newspaper’s accountability reporting efforts, including oversight of such Washington subjects and institutions as the White House, Congress, and 'the intersection of money and politics,' according to an internal memo. "

On the issue of the intersection of money and journalism, Thompson brings substantial first-hand experience to her new job.

Update: Although WaPo announced Thompson's hiring last week, it seems her official first day is today. I give her six months.

No comments: