One of the best political reporters in the country has married into a potential conflict of interest. How THE LOS ANGELES TIMES handles this situation will say a great deal about that newspaper’s ability to work its way through an ethical minefield that could easily explode in its face. Were it to explode it would give conservatives another persuasive reason to complain about the liberal bias in the news media.
The story is this. Ronald Brownstein is a political correspondent and columnist for THE LOS ANGELES TIMES. Many times I disagree with his columns but I cannot help but admit that he is a very bright reporter who possesses exceptional range and his knowledge surpasses that of many of his fellow scribes. Brownstein has just remarried and his wife, Eileen Nicole McMenamin, a former CNN producer, now is Communications Director for Senator John S. McCain, III (R-AZ).
This marriage between a McCain aide and one of journalism’s most widely-read political reporters truly poses a dilemma for the TIMES. A few weeks after their May 7th marriage was announced in THE NEW YORK TIMES (May 15, 2005) Brownstein ended his regular LOS ANGELES TIMES column by proclaiming, “I do not intend to treat McCain any differently as a result of my marriage, and my wife does not expect favored treatment for her boss. I certainly don’t expect any special treatment from McCain or his aides. Readers, of course, will have to make their own judgments…but I am confident that her new job will not affect my judgments, pro and con, about McCain and his initiatives.”
That assertion alone propelled the watchdog bloggers into action. Hugh Hewitt correctly noted that increased prominence for McCain only could serve to benefit Brownstein. Hewitt insisted, “At a minimum, the TIMES should be prepared to add at the bottom of every story Brownstein writes about McCain or people that should affect McCain’s presidential run the fact of the conflict.” Brownstein, after all, is a working reporter for a mainstream news media outlet that is supposed to provide objective reporting.
Another blogger, Brendan Nyhan, stated that Brownstein column on April 25 promoted a third party candidacy by McCain. That is a judgment call as to whether it really helps McCain, particularly if he seeks the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential nomination. It certainly raises the question. Unless Mr. and Mrs. Brownstein started dating and became engaged after the column was published Brownstein should have submitted his column much earlier. Brownstein knew he would soon marry McMenamin. (McMenamin clearly worked for McCain at the time. She is quoted in an April 21, 2005 ARIZONA REPUBLIC article, “Billboard Owner Bars Ad Targeting McCain.”)
It is all too easy to get wrapped up in individual cases and personalities. I recall raising serious questions two years ago after publication of an Associated Press story in which Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) addressed the Texas sodomy case. Santorum expressed a viewpoint consistent with his moral viewpoint and faith – and that of millions of Pennsylvanians — only to have his comments seized upon by the homosexual lobby and other groups on the Left including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). The AP reporter who conducted the interview and wrote the story was the wife of a leading Democratic strategist who recently had been Executive Director of the DSCC.
Often these journalist-political marriages are not between conservatives; it is liberals who end up viewed as attacking conservatives and quite possibly benefiting the interest of husband or wife. That may speak to a bias in the news media when setting ethical standards but the policy should be the same regardless of the political viewpoint of the couples involved. Newspapers or television networks should be aware of the potential conflict of interest and simply prevent the reporters from writing about people or related issues that would pose the conflict.
It’s a very simple policy. Let’s see how THE LOS ANGELES TIMES responds to the McCain-McMenamin-Browstein situation. A longtime observer of how the news media and Washington work I am not willing to risk a bet that the right thing will be done in this case.