The conflicts column

If a journalist reports on a politician his wife represented, that’s a conflict of interest, right?

Last week, it was very nearly me.

Thursday afternoon, I learned that my wife was the R.T. Rybak for Mayor campaign’s election lawyer in a campaign-finance case brought by the state Republican Party.

Luckily, I hadn’t written about the mayor in awhile. That wasn’t deliberate: MinnPost has others monitoring the finance complaint, and it never became a media controversy for me to dive into.

Still, seeing the name “Sarah Duniway” all over the Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board’s verdict Friday was a near-death experience. A guy who assesses others’ conflicts must be like Caesar’s wife. That requires disclosing some things about my wife, and how we handle our professional obligations.

Sarah is a lawyer for Gray Plant Mooty, specializing in nonprofit law. That means representing everyone from churches, struggling arts groups and charter schools to large health care providers, colleges, universities and civic organizations. As a result, roughly 20 percent of her business is policy- and election-related.

The Rybak thing, as it turns out, was an exception; she rarely represents candidates. For example, Sarah won’t represent anyone in the governor’s race. But that’s because she advises independent groups on election law. A part of her practice involves lefty groups, but she also gives election law advice to a wide array of nonprofits.

At this point, a journalist is faced with two choices: not write about politics, or disclose the conflict and let you, dear reader, factor this in when reading me. I’m doing the latter.

Fortunately, I’ve never been a guy to hide behind phony objectivity; I’ve been pretty open about being a lefty, while remaining a reporter/columnist pursuing facts. I think even ideological critics would admit my worldview doesn’t depend on my wife’s paydays.

So full disclosure and off we go, right? Well, it’s not that simple. I can’t disclose all entanglements with Sarah’s clients because she simply doesn’t tell me who all of them are.

Disclosure is a journalist’s value, but a lawyer’s professional responsibility demands discretion. I’ve never known all of Sarah’s clients — obviously — and I won’t going forward.

I learn client identities in a couple of ways: the client consents, or it becomes public. (See, belatedly: Rybak.)

The Rybak cautionary tale has forced us to clarify our dinner-table ground rules. If I know of a client, I will tell my editors — and you — should professional paths cross. For clients I don’t know about? We’ll all have to treat this as sort of a blind trust. I won’t know the ties exist or professionally benefit from them.

Sarah’s been a lousy source, so I know she’s been discreet about her business. I’ll have to be even more careful about discussing my work when it’s politically related. Unfun, but necessary.

Thankfully, Sarah is not a media lawyer, though one of her cases has affected what I cover. She’s part of a team defending St. Olaf College in a lawsuit brought by fans of WCAL, the religious and classical radio station MPR bought and turned into The Current.

I’ve told my editors I can’t write about the WCAL case, mostly because Sarah and I have talked about that one over the dinner table. (The long-running case is quite public.)

I’ve forwarded any coverage requests for my superiors to farm out. But I haven’t told the rest of the world, so consider this belated disclosure. Although Sarah does not represent MPR, the network is involved because the group SaveWCAL is challenging the sale.

While I’ve disclosed other conflicts regularly in columns, this is as good a place as any to round up paydays since MinnPost’s November 2007 debut:

  • Until last spring, I wrote a “Where are they now?” feature for a Minnesota Timberwolves season ticket-holder magazine, a once-a-month gig that predated MinnPost.
  • Until early 2008, I was paid to do weekly media analysis on Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered. I asked not to be paid when assuming the media beat here. I make very occasional free appearances these days. I generally say yes to other media requests, for no compensation.
  • Also for no pay, but FYI: I also moderate occasional debates, such as one in Minneapolis Ward 9 a couple of weeks ago, and a DFL gubernatorial forum for veterans on Friday.

As for partisanship: I do vote in elections (some journalists don’t) and have participated in DFL caucuses, when so moved, as an extension of voting. I have voted for the occasional Green and even a few Republicans, but not every often. I don’t contribute to or work for candidates, campaigns or issues. My last involvement in such matters came in 2006, when I helped get Instant Runoff Voting approved in Minneapolis. At the time, I was taking time off from journalism to be a housedad.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/11/2009 - 05:13 pm.

    We demand FULL disclosure! You must post the video of your last colo-rectal examination!

    Hey, Katie Couric did it. Just goin’ with the trends here.

  2. Submitted by Stan Daniels on 11/11/2009 - 05:38 pm.

    Nice column Mr. Brauer. Since I consider you more of a columnist and not so much a reporter, I’m not that concerned about your politics as a reader. I actually hope you are opinionated or I wouldn’t follow you. But — you are a stand-up guy for writing this.

  3. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 11/11/2009 - 06:38 pm.

    So why did Minnpost wait to report on this story? I understand that you would have had a conflict but its not you beat anyway. What was Eric or Doug doing. The good coverage that Doug gave the mayoral run should have lead into this story seamlessly. Maybe Chris Harte has a future after all. I do like the disclosure it further reiterates how far in the bag Minnpost is for the Dems. Speaking of conflicts does Minnpost receive any contributions via MN 2020 while running out Lois stories every other week.

  4. Submitted by John O'Sullivan on 11/12/2009 - 03:20 am.

    I appreciate the disclosure, David. I’ve got two follow-up questions though.

    -Do you consider yourself a columnist or a journalist? Do you distinguish the two?
    -Do you really think it’s necessary for columnists and/or journalists to disclose a rough outline of their voting history? I know some journalists take the ‘don’t vote’ route, a tack I personally disagree with, but I don’t think it’s necessary for the remainder of us to tell everyone how we vote. The voting booth is the most private of areas in our democracy, and I feel uncomfortable with the precedent you’re setting by disclosing.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/12/2009 - 08:05 am.

    David,

    Admit it, you’re a fifth columnist!

  6. Submitted by Martin Owings on 11/12/2009 - 08:11 am.

    As I’ve had the occassion to have you on my iNet show, I just wanted to verify to your reading public that you were NOT paid and that you did it gratis. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t be, if you were doing a regular gig somewhere on the radio, especially in light of your disclosures.

    I think what you’ve done here is the right thing, but I also think it’s also a by product of today’s media culture. Afterall, Reporters of a few decades ago might not have concerned themselves with this issue and all of its “legal” implications. (I understand these are different times).

    In a day and age where infotainment has replaced, in some cases news and the line has been blurred, there still seems to be some lingering question on who is a Journalist, like say Nick Coleman and David Brauer or a commentator like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or who might even be working in both capacities.

    It’s NOT an exact science, but I will say that growing up I read newspapers, learned the news biz and was lucky enough to get to know some Journalists. Here it is folks, you can still be a Journalist and have an opinion. Matter of fact, you should have an opinion, it makes your writing more interesting. However, if your assignment is to report the straight news, then you should do that without bias it makes for a more credible read. Brauer, remains credible because he can seperate the two and when his conscience calls him to, he can even disclose his conflicts, clearly the mark of a good Reporter.

  7. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/12/2009 - 08:17 am.

    John –

    On your first question, I’m not sure I see the divide. I consider myself a columnist *and* a journalist. A columnist in the sense that I don’t proclaim objectivity (i.e., I get to have opinions) and a journalist in that I gather/test facts via interviews, etc. The best columnists are good reporters, and that’s what I aspire to be. It all adds up to journalism, I think.

    Second, I think disclosing voting history is necessary for me. It’s voluntary disclosure. I have, during various breaks in my journalism path, been involved in DFL party politics. (Never as a campaign worker or a paid anything, but occasionally as a volunteer or party delegate.) I think that’s pretty rare for traditional journalists in this town, but I’m not a traditional journalist and I’m not trying to set a precedent for them. I DO think it’s important for me to disclose such info.

    By the way, every four years, Slate.com staffers disclose who they vote for in the presidential election. Personally, I love it – I don’t think we should be that mysterious. But again, voluntary. I don’t plan on disclosing how I vote in particular races.

    I’m pretty much an open book guy. I’ve disclosed my freakin’ salary here! This just fits with that. But sorry Eric, I will withhold images of my colonoscopy. The world will thank me.

  8. Submitted by John Armstrong on 11/12/2009 - 10:47 am.

    I also appreciate the disclosure, even if I could have guessed your political leanings without it. I wish all reporters/columnists/journalists/media outlets were as willing to admit what biases they might have. Being human beings, it is almost impossible to completely keep that out of what you write. Your relative openness about it is one of the reasons I respect what you have to say even when I don’t agree with it.

  9. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 11/12/2009 - 11:34 am.

    Now, I’ve never had much problem with the whole notion of biased media, provided the media is honest about their biases (which in the US they usually are not, clinging to the myth of “objectivity”). In Europe they are – which is why when you read The Guardian or Die Zeit, you know to filter for Labour/SDP bias, and with The Times and The Frankfurter Allgemeine for Tory/CDU slant.

    But with the likes of you and Eric Black admitting your biases, and others like Doug Grow on staff whose biases are obvious, how DOES the MinnPost defend itself against the accusation that it is, as Brodkorb put it, the new “DFL Newsline”, or a slightly glossier and less delusional “Minnesota Independent?”

  10. Submitted by David Brauer on 11/12/2009 - 12:03 pm.

    Mitch – I think bias does not equal bad journalism. We’re not faking footage a la Fox News, and not a propaganda mill for a party like they are. You’ll have to squint pretty hard to see my glorification of DFLers, and even Brodkorb has linked favorably to MinnPost when he ran MDE and as GOP deputy chair. He’s doing what he’s paid to do – spin – but he knows better.

    Can’t blame him for working the refs, though. That’s what he’s paid to do.

    Our stuff has to hold up factually; obviously opinions are arguable. I know Joel keeps searching for conservative reporters, and prints conservative op-eds, etc. often. That’s not something more ideological sites do. We’ve used Craig Westover and have Mike Bonafield. Is that equivalence? No. But I wasn’t hired as an ideologue; I was hired as a reporter/analyst (and I’d guess Joel would have been MORE interested if I was conservative!).

    I know you wouldn’t support affirmative action, so we need to find/unearth those people. Any nominations?

  11. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 11/12/2009 - 01:15 pm.

    “Any nominations?”

    It’s a challenge I’d take on in a heartbeat – if it could replace my day job. Which I suspect it can not 🙁

    And like I said, I don’t think bias=bad journalism, either; I read the Frankfurter Allgemeine AND the Guardian, knowing their biases. (Occasionally MinnPost, too…). For that matter, I strive for accuracy when I DO have time to “report” as opposed to write polemics.

    Thanks for the response.

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