CLEVELAND (TDB) -- Tom O'Hara steps down today as managing editor of The Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper, and is headed to academia where he'll teach ethics and open government at the Kent State University journalism school. O'Hara starts in January, and The Daily Bellwether is presenting a question he can wrestle with. Is it proper for an MSM journalist to become so involved in a statewide political campaign that she recruits and participates in the hiring of the campaign manager?
There's more (yes, it's a long question) -- the MSM news outlet has publicly declared its policy is neutrality.
This isn't a hypothetical. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz did become involved in a campaign while she was picking up a weekly paycheck from a certain large metropolitan newspaper in this state. Guess who was the managing editor at the time? Schultz is the spouse of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. Brown ran and defeated two-term Republican incumbent Mike DeWine in 2006, and Schultz has described how she helped put that campaign on track. Up until she helped land the campaign manager in mid-January 2006, she says, "Our campaign was a mess."
Shultz's choice for campaign manager: John Ryan, then president of the Cleveland AFL-CIO. Not everybody, of course, would agree that journalists should keep themselves out of an active role in politics. But it was enough of an issue in December 2005 that the newspaper's former editor, Doug Clifton, wrote na explanatory note to readers:
"She has a keen understanding of the delicate position she -- and our paper -- are in. She understands that she can't both campaign for her husband and write a column. And I understand that she is a supportive spouse who will be at her candidate husband's side from time to time."
Turns out, the understanding apparently was designed for public events, not behind-the-scenes campaigning. Here's what Connie writes in her book . . . and His Lovely Wife about her involvement in the selection process of Brown's campaign manager. The account is on pages 44 and 45:
'John Ryan believes in you,' I said.
'John Ryan believes in the work,' Sherrod said.
'You can trust him.'
Sherrod nodded. 'Nobody works harder than John Ryan.'
Sherrod walked upstairs to his office and made the call.
He came downstairs, his face clouded.
'He's thinking about it,' he said. 'He's not sure he's up to it.'
Connie says that Ryan remembers that she called him immediately. She does not remember the call, but adds that if Ryan says it happened it did.
According to John Ryan, I picked up the phone and dialed his cell number.
'Hey, Connie. Hi.'
'I know Sherrod just called you, and I know what he wants you to do.'
'Okay. Well, I'm going to give it a lot of thought --'
'Look, John Ryan. If this is about your family, then I understand why you can't do this. But otherwise I don't want to hear it. We need you.'
And then John Ryan says I hung up on him.
Ryan took the job. Connie was still working at her newspaper.
Here's some bio and background information about Tom O'Hara that was in a memo to The Plain Dealer's staff. H/T Jim Romenesko who publishes a journalism blog for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.
Again, the question raised by Connie's report of her involvement in recruiting and selecting Sherrod Brown's campaign manager goes to whether a journalist owes allegiance to journalism, or to partisan politics. By day, can one be an MSM journalist working for an ostensibly neutral news gathering organization, and by night be an insider hiring the people who run a U.S. Senate campaign? Are the dual roles inherently conflicted? What has first allegiance; journalism or the campaign?