making local government more ethical

The Conflicts of a Newspaper Owner with Governmental Interests

Newspapers aren't called the fourth estate for nothing. But in cities these days, they are more like the third estate, more important, that is, than the clergy. In fact, their investigations and editorials can bring down mayors, council presidents, even parties.

Local dailies may be losing money hand over fist, and weeklies, online papers, and blogs have taken away some of their power, but the dailies still have more power with respect to politicians and policies than anyone else.

We like to think of newspapers as run by the Benjamin Franklins and Bradlees of the world:  neutral, wise, and looking for a scoop. But newspaper owners can be seriously political, and often not in the European way of wearing their politics on their sleeves. This didn't use to be such a big problem, because cities had multiple dailies. Few do now.

The ownership of a city daily by individuals with powerful interests in the community to protect can lead one to thoughts of extending government ethics into the fourth estate. This is the case in Philadelphia, according to an article this week in the New York Times entitled "Interference Seen in Philadelphia Papers."

There's not much that can be done about rich individuals with strong dislikes, like Walter Annenberg, once owner of the Philadelphia Enquirer. But what about individuals involved in government, who have a duty to the community not to act for their personal interest?

Current officials are not vying to take over Philly's papers. If they did, at least they could be voted out of office. Instead, there's a former mayor and governor; a local power broker, party leader, hospital chair, and brother of a local state senator; and a parking lot magnate and effectively the owner of the local hockey team, both of whom necessarily have close business relations with government.

None of these individuals holds government office, but all either have political power, including close personal relationships with major elected officials, or do serious business with government. If I were running an ethics program, I would invite all of them to ethics training and ask them to seek ethics advice and report misconduct they know about.

At the same time, I would meet with newspaper editors to discuss coverage of the ethics program, ideas for ethics reform, and getting the right message out to the public about government ethics. And I would depend on the newspapers to investigate matters where people were too afraid to file an ethics complaint. And sometimes I would initiate investigations based on what they found.

The question is, if individuals such as these were to take over the dailies, would they uncover or cover up? Would these politically-involved individuals report misconduct to the ethics commission, would they keep it to themselves so they could get a scoop, would they suppress an investigation, or would they attack anyone who dared to report or investigate it?

Ethics programs are dependent on the support of newspapers. Like ethics programs, newspapers greatly value transparency, institutional integrity, investigation, and justice. Those who benefit from business with government and those who pull political strings from behind the scenes great value secrecy, loyalty, and mutual obligations. Newspaper love scandals, politically-involved people hate them (unless they involve the other party or faction). Newspapers defend ethics commissions, politically-involved people attack them. Which would newspapers owned by the politically involved do?

What happens when one's special relationships with those in government, and one's obligations to the institutions one is involved in (a sports team, a hospital, a political party, an owner of parking lots), conflict with the very special obligations a daily newspaper has to the public? Can a government ethics program play a role regarding such conflicts? It most likely cannot enforce laws in this situation, but it can act as a forum for the public and the players. It can hold public hearings to discuss ways to deal responsibly with the situation, and make recommendations regarding political involvement and contributions, gifts, legal representation, contracts, even resignation or sale of businesses. What other institution will discuss these issues publicly (other than the dailies' competitors)? It's a very unorthodox role for an ethics commission, but one that deserves consideration.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics