In yet another example of how ubiquitous digitized information will inevitably intrude on personal privacy, MSNBC has released a list of 144 journalists who gave federal political contributions from 2004 to early 2007, culled from online FEC reports. A sidebar summarizes the policies at a number of major outlets, many of which have been tightened recently because of internet access to donations. It’s all summed up by this comment in the strict New York Times policy, which now extends to all staff members, even if they just write the wine column:
Staff members may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides.
MSNBC’s accompanying story suggests that internet access and bloggers on the prowl for any sign of bias combine to make media outlets more restrictive of their employees’ political activities. But what public interest is served by knowing that a Business Week copy editor gave $400 to John Kerry? (Business Week policy permits the donation — but the trend is toward banning even copy editors.) I’ve argued before (6 U. Penn. J. Const. Law 1, for those with Westlaw or Lexis) that political contributions of this size should not be disclosed to the public at all. Nor should, for instance, most congressional staff salaries. No one believes voting should be public, even though it basically was public until secret-ballot reforms in the late 19th and early 20th century. Why contributions, or salaries? When disclosure is legally mandated, it promotes these increasingly strict and sweeping bans on a core form of political activity, which seem extreme and unrelated to true conflicts of interest. It’s a long way from the more contextualized — and, I think, more sensible — policy espoused by former Times editor Abe Rosenthal: “I don’t care if you sleep with elephants as long as you don’t cover the circus.”
It goes back to my constant refrain: systematic legal requirements for disclosure of private personal information — and political beliefs certainly qualify — should be justified based on a real-world benefit and not a hypothetical interest in general “openness.” I don’t think modest political contributions pass muster, for reporters or anyone else.