By Richard Prince
From Richard Prince’s Journal-ismsTM
Reprinted with permission
Editor’s note: Renowned journalist Richard Prince contacted Frost Illustrated and offered permission to reprint this piece from his website, Richard Prince’s Journal-ismsTM (http://mije.org/richardprince) in response to a NNPA commentary by Floyd Alvin Galloway of the Arizona Informant, published in the Feb. 19 edition of Frost Illustrated. Mr. Prince said he wanted to offer readers the following to correct mistatements made about his reporting on the NNPA.
In the late 1990s, when NATO was considering adding Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, not long out of the communist orbit, the National Conference of Editorial Writers went on a trip to the area. Don Wycliff, then editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune, came back so impressed that the Tribune’s position went from undecided to favoring admission of the three countries.
The trip by the NCEW, now the Association of Opinion Journalists, was not sponsored by a government, but by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, “an independent American public policy and grantmaking institution.” The editorial writers group continued on several other such trips, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, the Star Tribune Foundation and other such third parties.
Those trips come to mind in light of the recent government-sponsored trip to Morocco by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the trade group of publishers of black community newspapers. Such government-sponsored trips are considered violations of ethical guidelines by the Society of Professional Journalists and leading news organizations, mindful of the timeworn assumption “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” But the NNPA argues that it does not have the money to abide by such rules.
In an article last week excoriating this columnist’s reporting on the trip, NNPA Chairman Cloves C. Campbell Jr. said, “Of course, we understand that it is preferable that we pay our own way on such trips. But since we’re not getting our fair share of ad dollars and therefore don’t have the resources to pay for the trips, we have to come up with creative ways of covering Africa because the Motherland is too important for us to ignore.”
But asked on Monday whether NNPA considered seeking grant money for the trip, Campbell replied by email, “no.”
Wycliff now teaches journalism ethics, among other journalism topics, as a distinguished journalist in residence at Loyola University Chicago.
“I guess everything is changing now in this era when news organizations are no longer as flush as they used to be,” Wycliff told Journal-isms Monday by email. “However, it remains the case that, in the last analysis, what a news organization sells to the public is its reputation for credibility. The purpose of journalistic ethics is to build and maintain that credibility. Freedom from political, economic and other biases is essential to being credible. Nothing diminishes credibility as quickly as the suspicion of political influence and such influence — either through open or hidden agendas — always accompanies government funding.
“Foundations, by contrast, operate within limits, one of which is to act in some semblance of the public interest. That can be broadly construed, obviously, but it isn’t utterly elastic.”
The experience of the Association of Opinion Journalists might be instructive. Full disclosure: This columnist heads the AOJ Diversity Committee.
Jim Boyd, retired deputy editorial page editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and for many years chairman of NCEW’s International Affairs Committee, explained by telephone to Journal-isms that at one time, newspapers did pay for their staffers’ travel abroad.
“But newspapers stopped funding foreign travel because it was expensive. It was one of the first things to go. People tend to see them as junkets, even though it was extraordinarily beneficial.” Before that, some mainstream newspapers accepted trips from foreign governments, such as Japan’s, but “the ethics of journalism began to change. That’s not where ethics in journalism are today.”
So Boyd turned to foundations. “It’s a lot of work,” Boyd concedes. “It requires a lot of record keeping. We had to provide notebooks with every single article that came out of the trip. We had to explain where every dollar went.” Moreover, “I’m not sure that a newspaper organization that went out and tried to do what we did would be successful [today]. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try. Maybe nobody’s thought to ask.”
After the trip to Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, now NATO members, NCEW sought and received a three-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation for about $300,000, Boyd said. The first trip using that grant was in 1997 to Mexico City.
“The trip was quick, but long on content,” Linda Valdez, an editorial writer for the Arizona Republic, wrote for the organization’s magazine, the Masthead. “In addition to President [Ernesto] Zedillo and Governor [Cuauhtemoc] Cardenas, we had interviews with pollster Daniel Lurid, who explained the demographics and political mood; Secretary of Foreign Affairs Jose Angel Gurria, who told us in his Leeds University English about the challenges of dealing with U.S. politicians; and Roberto Rock, editorial director of El Universal, Mexico City’s largest daily. He told us how most of his reporters quit and the government sent 50 federal police with machine guns when his paper decided to try ethics in journalism, U.S.-style. . . . ”
In 1999, as Kosovo was fighting for independence after the breakup of Yugoslavia, NCEW spent two weeks in Russia. “The early June trip coincided with Russian efforts to help NATO find a way to end the Kosovo bombing and culminated as Russian troops boldly raced to take the Pristina airport ahead of NATO peacekeeping forces,” Pat Widder of the Chicago Tribune wrote for the Masthead.
“We tried to make them affordable so even a small newspaper could afford it,” Boyd said, speaking of the trips. Travel would cost the journalist perhaps $1,200, for example, although he said an unsubsidized cost would be $7,000 or $8,000. “Newspapers would still have to have some skin in the game,” Boyd said. In some cases, journalists, rather than a news organization, have ponied up when they became independent or their bosses would not.
Boyd, who spent nearly 27 years as the Star Tribune’s deputy editorial page editor before taking a buyout in 2007, cautioned that the employee coordinating such trips had to be prepared to give up about four or five months away from newspaper responsibilities. The association hired someone simply to arrange the travel and bookkeeping.
Also, Boyd said, priorities of foundations can change when their leadership does.
Boyd was awarded the 2005 Arthur Ross media award by the American Academy of Diplomacy “for critical, perceptive and non-partisan commentary on the policies of governments and international organizations, reflecting exhaustive research, a willingness to tell truth to power and a consistent appreciation for the importance of cooperation among nations.”
Sue Ryon, then NCEW president, took note then of Boyd’s tirelessness in seeking opportunities from “clean foundations.”
“By graciously agreeing to chair NCEW’s International Affairs Committee starting in ’97, Jim Boyd rescued what had become an all-but-moribund program,” Ryon wrote at the time. “Despite NCEW’s well-earned reputation for putting together affordable, content-rich foreign tours, the number crunchers in too many of our offices had decided that such travel was discretionary; by definition, then, it must be frivolous.
“As a result, participation in NCEW travel had dwindled to almost nothing. To their great credit, Jim’s predecessors did everything they could to stanch the hemorrhaging. Finally, they shifted the committee’s focus somewhat, from that of developing travel opportunities to one of providing NCEW members who write about foreign affairs with names, phone numbers and other resources that might help inform their thinking and commentary. That in and of itself was a great service. Still, we thought the travel thing deserved one last shot. If only we could clear that financial hurdle…
“Well, Jim became a man on a mission. With the Executive Board’s approval, he went out and raised money from ‘clean foundations’ that put no strings on its use; he was extremely careful to avoid anything that smelled of advocacy or partisanship. If memory serves, he raised roughly 70K the first year, which enabled NCEW to offer its members hefty subsidies for a couple of trips later that year. Just like that, NCEW travel was back in business. Jim also reinstated the State Department briefing, which had fallen by the wayside as too much money for too little information. (Those of you who have attended them over the last eight years might beg to differ with that proposition.)
“I’m absolutely delighted — though not at all surprised — to learn that Jim has received this prestigious award. In my book he’s a visionary, and NCEW’s the better for his leadership.”
Ryon added by email on Monday, “At the time, the NCEW Board was very careful to vet the organizations from which we were soliciting contributions, particularly the German Marshall Fund, which, if memory serves, was responsible for a big chunk of that $70,000. We ultimately agreed to go ahead with that contribution because 1) some individual NCEW members already had accepted travel underwritten by the Marshall Fund and assured us that we would get an objective view of U.S.-European relations, and 2) the only requirement was that members who availed themselves of this opportunity would copy anything they wrote to the Marshall Fund.
“Was the NCEW Board uneasy about accepting the German Marshall Fund’s generosity? To some extent, yes. It helped that the Marshall Fund had a stellar reputation. Moreover, as a board we agreed that the need to help NCEW members become more conversant with international affairs trumped the small condition attached to our acceptance of the grant.”