- Most journalists don’t give politicians money, but for those who have in the 2020 election, they’ve donated almost exclusively to Democrats, an Insider analysis of federal records shows.
- Following Insider’s inquiries, The Hill said it had suspended a political reporter who had contributed money to Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Senate candidate Amy McGrath, a Democrat running against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Los Angeles Times said it “pulled people off political coverage” who had made political contributions to several Democrats.
- Journalists at The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Houston Chronicle are among dozens of reporters, editors, and other newspeople who’ve given tens of thousands of dollars to political candidates and causes.
- Should President Trump’s attacks on the press, coupled with movements like Black Lives Matter, cause newsrooms to rethink their political-participation policies? Some say yes.
- This article is the first in a three-part series about the ethics of journalists personally participating in political advocacy.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Marshall Project is a small but mighty nonprofit newsroom that, during its six years in operation, has won multiple major journalism awards for its criminal-justice reporting, including a Pulitzer.
It’s aggressively reported on both Republicans and Democrats. Independence, accuracy, and nonpartisanship are among its founding principles.
Marshall Project journalists are expected to “shun” personal political involvement and avoid conflicts of interest, be they “real or perceived,” its code of ethics says.
But during this election, in which President Donald Trump endlessly trashes journalists as “fake news” and declares the press an “enemy of the people,” three Marshall Project journalists have together contributed hundreds of dollars to interests opposing Republicans.
Among the beneficiaries, federal records show, are Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and a political committee led by Democratic Party luminary Stacey Abrams.
Neil Barsky, The Marshall Project’s founder and board chairman, has himself spread $30,000 among prominent 2020 Democrats, including the campaigns of Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Jaime Harrison, who’s running to unseat Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.
For that Barsky makes no apologies.
“For the sake of our democracy and the health of our planet, I sincerely hope Trump loses on November 3, and I plan to continue to do everything in my power as a private citizen to help make that happen,” he told Insider, adding that The Marshall Project’s code of ethics does not apply to him because he is not a newsroom employee.
The vast majority of working journalists do not contribute money to political campaigns and committees, adhering to a decades-old industry norm that frowns on their participating in partisan politics.
But dozens of outliers — reporters, editors, photojournalists, and other newsroom professionals at outlets large and small — have contributed money to political candidates and committees during this election, according to an Insider analysis of campaign-contribution records filed with the Federal Election Commission and recent interviews with most of the journalists or their bosses. Many do not primarily cover or edit national political news, though some do.
These journalists sometimes made their political donations in violation of strict newsroom policies, and some expressed concern they’d be punished — even fired — if their supervisors found out.
After Insider’s inquiries this month, at least two news organizations, the Los Angeles Times and The Hill, confirmed that they had, even before this story’s publication, reprimanded journalists who had recently made political contributions.
Other reporters and editors took a defensive stance, arguing they had a constitutional right — newsroom policies be damned — to legally spend their own money as they pleased.
A few news organizations maintain no formal policy, refusing to police what they consider staffers’ personal decisions to make political contributions or participate in political movements.
Insider found that between January 1, 2019, and August 31, 2020, working journalists had contributed at least $110,000 to federal-level political committees. Because FEC contribution data contains omissions and errors, and Insider could not definitively confirm some contributions attributed in public records to journalists, the number is likely higher than $110,000.
There’s one commonality among members of the media who did give politicians money this election: Nearly all their cash went to Democratic candidates and causes, particularly Biden and Sanders.
Only a handful of journalists gave money to Trump, who on Monday tweeted yet another complaint about his press coverage: “Corrupt Media conspiracy at all time high.”
When reporting and donations clash
No law prohibits journalists from contributing money to candidates or causes, but many trade groups and newsrooms still demand abstinence. Their reasons: ethics, independence, and avoiding conflicts of interest.
“The simplest answer is ‘No.’ Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself,” the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee decrees.
“Political activity and active advocacy can undercut the real or perceived independence of those who practice journalism,” the Radio Television Digital News Association says in its code of ethics.
“We don’t donate money to candidates,” NPR’s ethics handbook says.
Editorial employees who violate such newsrooms’ rules risk disciplinary action, even termination.
But in some cases this election season, journalists’ personal politicking has collided with their professional duties.
On the evening of October 22, after Insider had inquired earlier that day about five Los Angeles Times reporters and editors who had recently made political donations, executive editor Norman Pearlstine and general counsel Jeff Glasser sent a memo to staff quoting newsroom policy against making political contributions.
“We treat these violations seriously because they undermine our commitment to impartial coverage,” Pearlstine and Glasser wrote in the memo.
“We also urge you to avoid public expressions or demonstrations of political views. Such political advocacy can call into question the impartiality of Times coverage, in fact or appearance … . “
Federal records show that deputy business editor Jeff Bercovici, photo editor Robert St. John, entertainment and culture writer Jessica Gelt, and copyeditors Lisa Horowitz and Rachel Dunn together made hundreds of dollars’ worth of political contributions that benefited a variety of Democratic committees, including the campaigns of Biden, Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the Democratic National Committee. Bercovici has written this year about political matters.
The Los Angeles Times staffers either declined to comment on the record or did not respond to requests for comment. But one staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired, said, “I find it ironic that an industry that depends on freedom of speech to exist denies its employees that same freedom when it comes to political expression.”
Without naming names, Pearlstine told Insider, “We have pulled people off political coverage whom we know made contributions.”
In Washington, political reporter Niv Elis at The Hill has given $150 to Warren and $100 to Amy McGrath this election cycle, FEC records show. Elis regularly writes about US government and politics, including Warren and McGrath’s opponent in Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Bob Cusack, the editor in chief of The Hill, told Insider that the publication had suspended Elis for “this lack of judgment.” Elis, who declined to comment, last wrote a story for The Hill on October 18.
McClatchy reporter Summer Lin contributed $150 to Sanders’ presidential campaign early this year. She’s regularly written about Sanders, and donated $50 to Sanders’ campaign on March 3, the same day she published a news article headlined “Biden narrows gap with Sanders in CA; other candidates near crucial threshold, poll says.”
Lin, who acknowledged an Insider email but did not provide comment, had had her stories appear throughout McClatchy’s 30 publications, which include the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star, Sacramento Bee, and Charlotte Observer.
“We don’t have a comment to share on this,” McClatchy spokeswoman Jeanne Segal said.
Insider’s own ethics policy directs news employees to refrain from “any level of financial contribution to a candidate’s campaign for elected office or any Political Action Committee supporting individual candidates for elected office.”
Even so, four Insider employees have given money to Democratic candidates and causes during this election.
They are reviews-team deputy editor Malarie Gokey, who’s made dozens of political contributions with a focus on the Warren and Sanders campaigns, and political columnist Linette Lopez, who made a series of small-dollar donations to Warren’s campaign and a fund in 2019 for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee — ultimately Biden.
The Insider employees did not respond to requests for comment. Gokey made her contributions while working at Insider but before becoming an editorial employee.
In response to questions about these contributions, Insider’s editorial standards board met last week and “conducted a thorough re-consideration of the policy, and came out strongly in favor of keeping it in place,” Insider senior vice president of communication Mario Ruiz said.
“We have spoken with the reporters in question to make sure they understand the importance of adhering to this rule,” he added.
Small-dollar donations no longer under the radar
It’s possible that some journalists who made small-dollar political contributions expected anonymity. It would not be a misguided assumption.
Federal political committees themselves have no legal obligation to disclose contributions of $200 or less.
But these days most Democratic political contributions are made online and processed through a digital fundraising platform called ActBlue, a “conduit” that serves as a middleman between the contributor to the recipient, and creates a public paper trail for even the smallest donations.
In 2019 Republicans launched a similar platform, which they dubbed WinRed.
While working as a national reporter for The Washington Times, Bailey Vogt made monthly $5 contributions to the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, from March to December 2019, FEC records show. During this time, Vogt, who now works as a reporter and producer for the news network Newsy, wrote articles about Buttigieg and other candidates.
“Political activity violates our employee policy,” Washington Times managing editor Cathy Gainor said. “We were unaware of Bailey Vogt’s donations.” Vogt declined to comment.
Houston Chronicle web editor Dan Carson gave several hundred dollars to Sanders’ campaign. The Chronicle prohibits editorial employees from making political contributions, and the matter is “being dealt with internally,” executive editor Steve Riley said.
ProPublica reporting fellow Will Young, who published lengthy articles about the Internal Revenue Service and federal judiciary, made small contributions in June to three Democratic congressional candidates, using the name “Everette Young” to do so.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news organization ProPublica features one of the nation’s more robust newsroom-ethics policies, which directs all news employees to refrain from “partisan political activity, including signing petitions, participating in marches or rallies, displaying lawn signs or making political contributions.” Employees are required to sign and certify the ethics policy annually.
ProPublica’s president, Richard Tofel, confirmed that Will Young and Everette Young were the same person and that Young, who did not respond to requests for comment, left the company in September.
Tofel said he was not aware of Young’s political contributions until now. Any news employee found to have made a political contribution would face “significant discipline,” he added.
At the Boston Globe, senior digital producer Abbi Matheson made a series of small-dollar donations to Warren’s presidential campaign between April 2019 and February 2020. Boston Globe editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman said the donations went against the newsroom’s ethics policy.
“We take this matter seriously and handled it internally after it came to our attention,” Venkataraman said. “We are confident this lapse will not happen again.”
Boston Globe spokeswoman Heidi Flood acknowledged that two other employees — a high-school sportswriter, Nathaniel Weitzer, and food writer Erin Kuschner, of Boston.com — had made recent political contributions to Democratic interests and that the matter had been handled internally.
Blurred lines and inconsistent standards
What’s prohibited for one reporter at a news organization may be perfectly acceptable for another.
Freelance science and environmental reporter Tatiana Schlossberg has scored bylines in some of the nation’s most prominent publications this year, including The New York Times and Washington Post.
Schlossberg is the granddaughter of President John F. Kennedy and a generous donor to Biden’s campaign, having contributed $4,400, FEC records show.
She’s also made three-figure contributions to the campaigns of Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, as well as Democratic congressional candidate Jamal Bowman, who defeated incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel of New York in a primary earlier this year.
Schlossberg’s work isn’t primarily political but often discusses issues that are, including climate change and environmental policy. Her Times article on October 10, 2017, focused on Trump and his administration’s environmental agenda.
Her September 10 piece in The Post, headlined “Cooling off without air-conditioning,” mentions the Trump administration.
Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said that Schlossberg, who had stopped writing for the newspaper earlier this year, wasn’t subject to the publication’s prohibition on journalists making political contributions because she was a contract employee, not a staff member.
Post spokeswoman Shani George said that Schlossberg, on becoming a Post freelancer this summer, “was made subject” to the publication’s ethics policy going forward.
That policy, in part, says: “We avoid active involvement in any partisan causes — politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations — that could compromise or seem to compromise our ability to report and edit fairly.”
It would also appear to apply to Serena Golden, an editor for The Post’s opinions section, who last year contributed money to Warren’s presidential campaign, FEC records show.
New York Magazine politics reporter Benjamin Hart contributed $250 on December 31 to the Senate campaign of Democrat Mark Kelly, who’s running against incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona’s hypercompetitive, and expensive, race.
Sixteen days later, in an article headlined “Watch GOP senator call reporter ‘liberal hack’ for asking about impeachment,” Hart wrote about McSally’s much-ballyhooed Capitol Hill run-in with CNN reporter Manu Raju. The article mentioned Kelly by name.
New York Magazine’s political-donations policy is ambiguous.
“We leave it to writers and their managers to determine if a writer has a conflict,” said spokeswoman Lauren Starke of Vox Media, the magazine’s parent company, adding that New York Magazine does not “necessarily consider donations to political causes or candidates a conflict — it depends on the details.” Hart could not be reached for comment.
CNN representatives declined to comment on the record, but one network official said that while CNN producers and reporters are not allowed to make political contributions, Annenberg was hired as part of a joint venture with the University of Chicago and not subject to the same rules.
Journalists for Trump
While most journalists who make political contributions send them to Democrats, a handful are giving money to Trump’s reelection campaign. And newsrooms’ responses to these Trump-backing journalists vary.
At the Houston Chronicle, freelance real-estate reporter Rebecca Maitland has made near monthly contributions to Trump’s campaign totaling more than $800.
The Chronicle’s ethics standards prohibit political contributions by newsroom staffers, Riley, the executive editor, said. Maitland is a freelancer and “not subject to our policies, but perhaps should have been,” Riley added. “We’re looking into it.”
Carlos Bongioanni, a Washington, DC, reporter for the military-affairs-focused publication Stars and Stripes, gave Trump’s campaign $45 each month from March to September, FEC records show.
Bongioanni’s articles sometimes reference Trump, including a story from September about a wounded military veteran pushing back against a report that the president said military personnel killed in World War I were “losers.”
Bongioanni did not respond to requests for comment, but Stars and Stripes editorial director Terry Leonard said his contributions “don’t violate any of our policies.”
Federal records indicate that photojournalist Rafael Murciano of CBS affiliate WFOR-TV in Miami has made several hundred dollars in contributions to Trump’s campaign. Neither Murciano nor station executives returned requests for comment.
On the West Coast, Rowena Shaddox, a reporter for Fox affiliate KTXL-TV, in Sacramento, California, made two modest contributions through the Republicans’ WinRed platform this year, with at least one of them going to Trump, FEC records show.
Shaddox did not respond to messages. Station general manager Scot Chastain, beyond confirming Shaddox works as a general-assignment reporter, declined to comment.
“We aren’t at liberty to discuss internal personnel policies,” Chastain said.
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to Insider questions about journalists who’ve given it money. The Biden campaign declined to comment.
Some bosses to journalists: You do you with politics
If you work at a publication owned by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, spending your money on politics is a less fraught endeavor.
“Personal contributions to political parties or candidates are a matter of individual choice,” Gannett’s ethics policy says.
Other news outlets feature similar policies, such as Fox News, which said in a statement to Insider that it “does not prohibit individual employees from making political donations,” though federal records show that few do.
Jessica Sager, who worked at Fox News last year as an entertainment editor and now freelances, took advantage of this policy. She made about 20 small-dollar contributions to Sanders’ presidential campaign, writing “I hate them” or “I f—— hate my life” after listing Fox as her employer in FEC documents.
Sager said by phone that she wasn’t aware Fox had a policy one way or another, adding, “I’m a private citizen, and I don’t think it’s anyone’s business.”
New York Post books editor Mackenzie Dawson said her publication’s permissive political donation policy freed her to contribute several hundred dollars to Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Save for a recent interview with Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, about his new book, her work rarely intersects with politics.
“If I did cover politics, I would avoid political contributions,” Dawson said.
Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, a Washington editorial-operations director for Mother Jones, a nonprofit left-leaning politics and policy magazine, contributed $100 last year to Jessica Cisneros, a Democratic congressional candidate in Texas who lost earlier this year in a primary.
Szegedy-Maszak did not return requests for comment, but CEO Monika Bauerlein said in a statement: “We recognize and respect the right of Mother Jones employees to engage in the democratic process (on their own time and with their personal resources), especially at this time of crisis.”
Like Maitland at the Houston Chronicle, some notable names in journalism get passes, their publications confirmed, because they’re contract employees or otherwise work in capacities that receive carve-outs from their publications’ political contribution rules. Among them:
- New York Times writer Julie Weed, who’s contributed more than $31,000 to Democratic candidates and committees since 2019.
- New Yorker staff writer and critic David Denby, who’s given thousands of dollars to Democratic committees, including Biden’s campaign and the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC that another New Yorker writer, Paige Williams, recently profiled. New Yorker spokeswoman Natalie Raabe said such contributions by Denby “would not violate the policies of the magazine.”
- Intercept senior correspondent Naomi Klein, who divvied $1,750 among Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Pramila Jayapal and congressional candidate Cori Bush. Klein “is transparent about her political activism and support, and adheres to the highest ethical standards in her work,” Intercept editor in chief Betsy Reed said.
- New York Times writer Charles McGrath, who last year gave $250 to Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey.
- Bloomberg editor in chief emeritus Matthew Winkler, who gave $500 in August to the Voter Protection Project, a political committee that backs a slate of Democratic congressional candidates.
Several prominent reporters and broadcasters who cover the sports beat — a politically-perilous topic during the Trump era — are among the more than 20 sports journalists Insider identified overall who have made political contributions without their news organizations expressing concern.
Among all journalists, Julie Lane, who writes for several small newspapers in Long Island, New York, may be the most prolific Democratic donor. Federal records indicate she’s made several hundred small-dollar contributions since 2019, sometimes donating several times a day.
Lane said she makes her contributions because Americans live “at a time when our Constitution has been violated and checks and balances are non-existent.”
But, she added, she contributes no money to political causes in her newspapers’ circulation area, and she doesn’t let her personal views seep into her reporting work.
“I believe my job is to offer views from varied sources, to leave my personal views out and simply to give readers the spectrum that enables them to make their own decisions,” Lane said.
Standards in a time of Trump and social unrest
Doctors earn medical licenses. Lawyers pass bar exams. What makes journalists journalists?
Is Fox News host Sean Hannity a journalist? He hasn’t made political contributions this election cycle. But he’s certainly one of Trump’s most notable acolytes and advocates, with his TV and radio shows providing the president immeasurable benefit.
Hannity, a self-described “multimedia superstar,” has offered competing answers to the journalist question.
In interviews with more than a dozen people who philosophize about the future of journalism — academics, industry-group leaders — they offered varying definitions of “journalist,” and they differed over whether it was acceptable for journalists to engage in politics.
Some advocate — now more so than ever — for traditional newsroom prohibitions on employee political participation, particularly since public trust in the mainstream press is eroding.
This year a Pew Research Center survey found that only 43% of the US adults polled believed journalists had “high” or “very high” ethical standards.
“Anything that journalists can do to build trust and not invite distrust is for the better,” Ryan Thomas, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, said.
Howard University journalism professor Jennifer Thomas is among those who say journalists should still not give money to political candidates.
But what, say, of a Black reporter who wants to help clean up neighborhood streets after a social-justice protest and feels stifled by newsroom conflict-of-interest standards?
“Perhaps it is time to revisit [those standards] in light of recent events,” Thomas said.
“For reporters or anyone, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a factual statement, not a political one,” said Rick Rodriguez, a journalism professor at Arizona State University and former editor of the Sacramento Bee, who also advocates that journalists do not make political contributions.
But Sue Cross, the executive director and CEO at Institute for Nonprofit News — which counts nearly 300 nonprofit news organizations among its members — said newsrooms should be less concerned about employees making political contributions and more concerned with being transparent about it if they do.
“The reader can decide if that’s material or not,” Cross said. “You have to trust your readers.”