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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes


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In which we go looking for the union label in a bit of turnabout ...and run up against a bit of evasiveness on the part of a normally aggressive reporter. 

Let's start, though, at the beginning. During last fall's campaign, I repeatedly urged the audience to become engaged and active in the campaign, including by opening their wallets. and as I said, i was also putting my money where my mouth was (this was disclosed not merely to the auidences on a 50K radio station, but also to management). I told the auidence to write checks to the candidate of their choice and.... took my own advice.

I not only am not "defending" my donations, I'm touting them. And if i can afford it, will commit more flagrant acts of democracy. 

As Media Trackers notes, this hardly comes as news to anyone who listens to my show: 

 Sykes is a known conservative. His show obviously leans right. He’s made no bones about where he stands on political issues. His donations show that he puts his money where his mouth is. Now, if Sykes were a reporter this would be an issue, but he is a talk show host. Like an editorial writer, his show and website are based entirely on his opinions. A reporter must be impartial and donating to political campaigns would be a definite no-no, but that isn’t what Sykes is.

“Media outlets have rules to maintain the appearance of neutrality for journalists writing objective stories, but commentators are different,” explained Marquette University Associate Professor of Political Science John McAdams. “Charlie Sykes’ job is to have an opinion. He’s explicitly on air because of his strong opinions. It’s difficult seeing how his donations are an issue. Now if he donated to a Democrat, that would be news.”

 You can read Bice's bog post here (in which he quite accurately quotes me).

He wrote a followup here, noting that other talk show hosts also 9shockingly) exercise their free speech rightts too.


But let's go the email exchange from yesterday:

I received this email from Dan Bice:


Somebody recently emailed me records showing that you gave to Johnson, Ribble and Walker in October. When did you start giving to candidates?

I'll need something on the record explaining why you donated to people you interview on your show.

Also, do you think the donations compromise your independence? I know you say you're primarily an entertainer, but you often break stories via the Insight conference and the show.

I believe the Journal Sentinel's ethics policy bars me from donating to candidates. Is TMJ OK with the contributions? How is this different than Keith Olbermann's campaign donations (other than the party affiliation of the recipients)?

Not often that you and Olbermann appear in the same sentence.



I responded:
I put my money where my mouth is. I make no secret of where I stand or who I support.
As I said at the time, I had no problem with Olbermann contributing to candidates since (as I said on my show) that I was doing the same things (although, I suspect we gave to different ones.)
This is something I openly disclosed both to the audience -- who I also encouraged to give to candidates -- and to management. 



I followed up:

Since this is public record, I assume you will disclose who emailed you this information; and whether this was part of the operation to try to harass and intimidate donors.


Bice answered:

might if I knew who was behind it.

The note came from a clearly fake email address. I wrote back but haven't gotten a reply.


Then I wrote to Bice:

Since turnabout is fair play: are you a member of the union? Do you think it compromises your independence or that of other reporters to belong to a union affiliated with the CWA and Afl-CIO? Do you think that union members should disclose this fact when writing about union or political stories? Have you or they done so?


 Bice replied:

Fair enough:

I have been a member of the guild at various times in my 19 years here. I don't think it's affected my independence.

Otherwise, I wouldn't have written in recent months about vote fraud within AFSCME (, the questionable activities in the state firefighters union ( and the secretly recorded plans by SEIU to target Walker (

I am regularly questioned as to whether I have an anti-union bias. You are the first person I can recall who has suggested I may have a pro-union one.

Dan Bice


I then responded (noting that he had dodged my questions):

 I didn't suggest you had a bias. I just asked whether there was a conflict between (a) being a memkber of a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO and (b) writing stories about unions including the AFL-CIO. Are you currently a member of the union?


Also, you didn't answer my question: whether you think it would be appropriate for you and other reporters to disclose your union membership when writing about union issues.



He responded

 Yes, I am currently a member of the union. I don’t think it affects what I do. But that’s for you and others to decide.


Dan Bice


Hmmm... and about the disclosure of this possible conflict? Bice doesn't answer the question; something I doubt that he would let a slippery or evasive politician get away with.

The only way for others to decide, of course, is if they know about the potential conflict in the first place; by failing to disclose the union membership, most readers have no way to make up their minds or form an opinion one way, or another.


One final word: I could have sworn I actually gave more money, including $ to Sean Duffy. I also co-hosted a fundraiser for senator Leah Vukmir and a rally for Ron Johnson (it was in all the papers.) The donations, by the way, were all voluntary and from my personal stash, not coerced through union dues.

This is what democracy looks like.


UPDATE: Early this morning, I received this email from Bice.

I failed to answer your question about conflicts of interest.


Here are my rather quick thoughts:


There is a conflict of interest if I have strong ties or associations with individuals, groups or institutions that would call into question my ability to provide an impartial description or account of events directly or closely related to them. Key factors in determining a conflict would be proximity between the group, individual or institution and the event or events being described and the nature of the benefits I received from the group, individual or institution.


So if I was named the religion reporter, would I be ethically prohibited from covering certain events on my beat because I'm a practicing Christian? I'd say no. But I would say that I shouldn't write about events related to St. Matthew's Lutheran Church because I am a member there and receive certain benefits as a member. Should I disclose that I am a member of the ELCA or be ethically prohibited from writing about developments in that denomination? Again, there is distance between my membership at St. Matthew's and its parent organization, which I've never given to directly and I am not associated with any of the denomination's staff, so I think it would be OK to write about such subjects.


Likewise, if I were the head of the PTA at my kid's public school, could I ethically write about Gov. Walker's plans as they relate to the public schools? I would have no problem with that because of the distance between his plans and my kid's school. The issue here is proximity -- or the lack thereof. But if MPS decided to close my kid's school in response to Gov. Walker's budget cuts, I think I should either disclose my connection to the school or have someone else write the story. I would be too close to the situation.


Regarding reporters and columnists belonging to the Newspaper Guild -- and I think the rules for each group would be different -- I would say it would be a clear conflict to write about the guild or its local. The reporters and columnists have a clear association with those organizations. But there is much greater distance between that membership and matters affecting the CWA or AFL-CIO. Personally, I know no one with either organization and have never paid any money directly to those organizations. I do not believe have received any direct or substantive benefits from those two other groups.


There is even greater distance between my membership and union issues overall, especially those affecting public employees unions. Therefore, I wouldn't see a conflict there.


In addition, I joined the guild so I could vote on the company's plan either to slash wages or to lay off scores of staffers. I thought it was better for the paper if we accepted an across-the-board pay cut instead of massive layoffs, even though it was against my own interest. (I was unlikely to be one of those laid off, I believed.) As an otherwise inactive guild member, I derive no benefits from the organization. I have never been to a board meeting, a picnic or other guild-sponsored event, except for a few luncheon meetings.


Two final points: I would assume whatever conclusions you reach regarding the MJS and the guild, I think you should apply to other unionized newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal. I have seen you tweet its work repeatedly but haven't seen or heard you discuss its guild activity. Perhaps I simply missed it.


Finally, on the issue of conflicts of interest, I am more interested in people who receive tangible benefits from the groups, institutions or individuals with whom they are associated. For instance, I care more about someone receiving pay from an ideologically oriented group that advocates an anti-union or pro-union stance than I am in someone who simply makes payments to belong to an organization. Thus, I think it would be imperative for anyone to disclose that they receive such income when discussing union issues (or whatever topic they are discussing for which they are being paid).


I hope this is helpful. If I had more time to think about it, I would have made this shorter.




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