I’m still trying to recapture my political virginity. Again.
And, yes, that’s redundant.
After seven-plus years, though, the effort may be beginning to take. Denver is heading into a mayoral election, and for once, I don’t have a dog in the hunt.
Granted, I know most of this year’s candidates. But for the first time since 1971, I count none of them as friends. To paraphrase the redoubtable Bilbo Baggins: “I don’t know half of them half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of them half as well as they deserve.”
I can’t tell you how good it feels.
When you’ve bounced back and forth between being a political operative and a practicing journalist for 35 years, it’s almost impossible to go into an election season without the emotional and professional ties that are the very essence of conflict of interest for someone in the news business.
Heck, I almost refused to take this job in 1995 because I couldn’t imagine how I’d cope if the editorial board voted not to endorse my old friend and colleague Wellington Webb for another term as mayor. To resume my journalist’s persona, I had to be prepared to throw loyalty to the winds.
Veteran Denver Post editorial board member Bob Ewegen offers the kind of commiseration that doesn’t make you feel one whit better: “Any election in which I don’t lose one old friend,” says Ewegen, “is an election in which I didn’t do my job.”
Actually, though, Ewegen and I have it easy. We work in opinion, which means that we are permitted to have some. And fortunately we’re not obliged to aspire to the unrealistic goal of “objectivity.” The trick, though, is not to let our personal or partisan loyalties get in the way of simple fairness or the exercise of our own good judgment. The Post pays us to come up with sound, consensus decisions. If Bob dug in his heels as the house Republican, and I dug in mine as the house Dem, we’d probably be able to write about one editorial a week.
I’ve been riding this merry-go-round since 1968: from fervent Young Democrat to broadcast political reporter to gubernatorial operative; back to journalism, this time at The Post, and then a plunge into teaching, where I at least was free to make political contributions once again.
By the time I came back to The Post in 1995, I figured I’d lost – and regained – my journalistic chastity three times. (And, yes, each time was more fun than the last.) Fortunately for me, and contrary to industry tradition, journalism doesn’t have an absolute “three strikes and you’re out” law.
Anyone who tries this minuet needs to dance it carefully, however. In part, you have to be Caesar’s wife, but you’re the guardian of your own honor, not of Rome’s. I don’t have one-on-one meetings with candidates, either Democrat or Republican, for example. I don’t want to set up the suspicion that I’m putting the fix in for a friend – and I want, selfishly, to spare myself the pain of having friends I can disappoint.
Another part of the solution is to know yourself. Know when you’re going from your gut rather than your head and recuse yourself from the decision or the story if you can’t shake the impulse. I’ve abstained from editorial-board deliberations on several topics – including, most hurtfully, the decision on whether to endorse my own son’s race for the state Senate.
But perhaps more dangerous and dishonest than going from your gut is committing the self-serving hypocrisy of bending over backward. In my early days as a radio statehouse reporter, I’ll admit, I was much, much tougher – unfairly tough – on the Democrats. I’d justify it by saying that, of course, Democrats should be expected to have higher standards than Republicans. But I still was manifestly unfair. My contortions served only the goal of making me feel better, not of giving my listeners the skinny any straighter.
Ewegen and I still do backbends, by the way, when we work on legislative endorsements, a process that is in large part a numbers game: Which party are you going to be more unfair to this year? He, the Republican, consistently pushes for endorsing Democrats. I, the Dem, can be relied upon always to make the case for GOP candidates. Fortunately, each of us knows what the other is doing so our gymnastics balance each other pretty well.
Another article of faith for journalists whose instincts and histories may seem to conflict with their ability to do their jobs is to do whatever you do transparently. Our ability to serve our readers depends on securing, and keeping, their trust. In my experience, it works best to throw yourself on the mercy of the court. Tell your readers and viewers, loudly and often, that you’re absolutely riddled with conflicts of interest: who you’ve worked for, what your faith is, what party you espouse, your marital status, name, rank and serial number. Then trust them, in return, to sort out when your biases are getting in the way of the truth of the story you’re telling. As in campaign finance reform, disclosure is the surest remedy of all.
Sue O’Brien, now editor of the editorial pages of The Denver Post, is a former broadcast journalist, press secretary to Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm and campaign manager to Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, and associate dean of the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication.