Should the AJC practice what it preaches on transparency and disclosure?

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has put a lot of its editorial and reporting emphasis in recent years on the issues of government disclosure and transparency.

Georgia’s largest newspaper is a frequent filer of open records requests in its pursuit of information about government salaries and contracts.

In Cobb County, AJC reporter Dan Klepal has done some excellent work exposing the attempts by County Commission Chairman Tim Lee to negotiate secretly for an agreement that requires the county to fork over nearly $400 million in public tax funds for construction of a new stadium for the Atlanta Braves.

In some instances, the AJC takes care to be transparent about disclosing some of its own business operations. If there is a news story that involves WSB’s TV and radio stations, the newspaper will usually include a disclaimer noting that the AJC and WSB are both owned by the Cox Media Group.

The newspaper has been less transparent and open, however, when it comes to disclosing the money its own executives have infused into the governor’s race this year.

Those contributions have flared up at least once as an issue in the campaign and have been a cause of friction between the newspaper and top aides to Gov. Nathan Deal.

The AJC published a lengthy article by James Salzer and Kristina Torres on Aug. 22 that detailed the connections between campaign contributions to Deal and the governor’s subsequent appointments to three influential state boards.

“More than four-fifths of members on those boards, nearly all of whom were appointed or reappointed by Deal, have contributed nearly $1.3 million to Deal’s campaign and political action committee,” the AJC reported.

On the day that story appeared, Deal’s opponent, state Sen. Jason Carter, held a news conference on the capitol grounds to denounce the appointments and call them “another in the long line of Governor Deal’s ethics problems.”

Deal’s media spokesman, Brian Robinson, was hanging around the fringes of that news conference and went ballistic over Carter’s statements.

Robinson quickly reminded reporters that Anne Cox Chambers, the grande dame whose family owns Cox Enterprises, had contributed substantial amounts of money to the campaigns of both Carter and his grandfather, former president Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter, Robinson noted, subsequently appointed Chambers as the U.S. ambassador to Belgium.

Robinson contended that the AJC should “report in every story” it published about the governor’s race that the newspaper’s owner was a Carter contributor. The AJC “should not be reporting this story” about Deal’s contributors because of the newspaper’s own contributions to Carter’s campaign, he added.

It is known that Robinson and Kevin Riley, the AJC’s top editor, have had some intense discussions about the newspaper’s coverage of the governor’s race and the possible influence of Chambers’ support. To this day, however, the newspaper has not once acknowledged or disclosed the campaign contributions that its own people have made to Carter.

Since the AJC won’t do it, we will.

A review of the records at the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission shows that Jason Carter has received more than $26,000 in contributions from Chambers and at least 13 other Cox executives or employees.

Chambers is by far the biggest giver. She contributed $12,600 last December to Carter, shortly after he announced his candidacy: $6,300 for the primary and $6,300 for the general election. In 2010, she contributed $4,900 to Carter’s first race for the Georgia Senate.

Chambers has also donated $108,900 to the Georgia Democratic Party since 2008, according to state records.

Some of the other Cox contributors include Michael Grover, an attorney ($2,000); John P. Spalding, Cox’s vice president for government affairs ($2,750); Christopher Morter, corporate counsel for Cox Communications ($750); and Ed Patterson, a senior director for public affairs ($750). A Cox executive also hosted a fundraiser at his home for Carter in early October.

No contributions appear to have been made by any of the AJC’s editors or reporters.

Robinson argues that these Cox contributions raise important ethical questions about the AJC and its coverage of the governor’s race.

“That’s a conflict of interest that any ethical publication should point out in every story,” Robinson said in a phone interview. “They have never once pointed it out, even though they’ve written many stories about who donated to whom. They want to raise questions about our appointments, but without a hint of irony, express outrage that we would point out the same thing to them.”

“There is an underlying hypocrisy between the stances of the editorial page and the actions of the paper’s top management,” Robinson said. “We brought it up with Kevin Riley and he was emotionally offended at the charges.”

While taking into account the fact of the campaign contributions by Cox people, Robinson had some positive observations to make about much of the coverage of the governor’s race.

“The AJC’s coverage has certainly been more balanced than it was four years ago, when it was so out of whack that it was beyond fair,” he said. “They have not been overtly biased in their coverage – that’s a credit to [reporter] Greg Bluestein, largely. I do think there’s been a lack of substantive coverage of the election across the board.”

When he was questioned about why the newspaper would not disclose the contributions by Chambers and the others, editor Kevin Riley called it “a little over the top.”

“We look at it on a case-by-case basis,” Riley said. “Do we need to include it in this story? That seems to be a little over the top.”

“I have been an editor [in the Cox organization] for eight years,” Riley said. “I have never, ever been contacted by any senior folks in the company about our political coverage. We just go out and try to cover the stories as best we can.”

He observed that “Cox probably has about 50,000 employees, and it encourages them to get civilly engaged. It doesn’t affect how we cover the campaigns.”

Still, he was asked, shouldn’t the newspaper include a disclaimer about the Cox campaign contributions, similar to the disclaimers it publishes about WSB-TV, as a matter of transparency and openness for its readers?

“What we do is look at it on a case-by-case basis and make the decision,” Riley said.

William Perry, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia who’s often quoted by AJC reporters in articles about ethics and campaign disclosure, was reluctant to criticize the newspaper on this particular issue.

“As an ethical issue, this doesn’t rank very high,” Perry said. “In a perfect world, I’d like to see journalism completely pure – not choosing sides, not giving money to candidates. I would have more heartburn about it if political contributions weren’t disclosed to the public, which they are.”

Perry added: “I have no doubt that reporters are still remaining neutral and editors are not making decisions based on the political views of the corporate ownership. It probably would be a good idea to make that statement [a disclaimer in the AJC about Cox contributions], but it is at such a high level of ownership it doesn’t affect what a reporter decides to put in an article or not. I don’t think it happens at Morris News Service, either.”

The AJC has had a mixed record when it comes to making corporate disclaimers in other areas.

In 2013, the newspaper devoted extensive coverage to the proposed construction of a new stadium for Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed worked out an arrangement in which the city’s development authority issued $200 million in bonds to pay part of the construction costs for a $1.2 billion stadium that will replace the Georgia Dome.

As the AJC reported, that $200 million could eventually expand into as much as $900 million in public funds for the stadium: $450 million in principal and interest payments on the bonds, plus another $450 million to pay the expenses of operating the stadium, which will be owned by the Georgia World Congress Center.

That’s an impressive monetary gift from state and local governments for a private businessman, Blank, who’s wealthy enough to pay for his own stadium.

In addition to owning the Falcons, Blank is also a member of the Cox Enterprises board of directors. That fact was noted once by the AJC during its coverage of the stadium construction developments, in an article by Greg Bluestein and Tim Tucker that was published on March 16, 2013.

That appears to be the only time that particular fact was disclosed in the many articles about the new stadium that the AJC has published.

© 2014 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: Anne Cox Chambers , Atlanta Journal-Constitution , Brian Robinson , campaign contributions , Cox Enterprises , governor\'s race , Jason Carter , Kevin Riley , newspaper disclaimers , William Perry