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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Journalistic Ethical Lines that Should Not be Crossed

It was with some anticipation that I looked at the editorial section of the Davis Enterprise this morning. For on this Sunday morning it was quite likely that the Davis Enteprise would be offering their endorsement on Measure H & I (Smud Annexation). One has to wonder if this was appropriate at all given Debbie Davis' husband, Bruce Gallaudet's relationship to PG&E and the No on H & I campaign. Davis and the Enterprise probably save themselves serious allegations by taking the Yes on H & I position, against the stated position of Gallaudet, but the questions about the proper relationship between Journalism, Business, and Politics do not resolve themselves so easily.

The legal Definition of a conflict of interest:
A situation in which a person has a duty to more than one person or organization, but cannot do justice to the actual or potentially adverse interests of both parties. This includes when an individual's personal interests or concerns are inconsistent with the best for a customer, or when a public official's personal interests are contrary to his/her loyalty to public business.
As we reported earlier this week, Debbie Davis' husband signed two ballot statements in the sample ballot that oppose Measure H. First he signed the statement opposing Measure H and second he signed the Rebuttal to the argument for Measure H. In other words, the husband of the Editor of the Davis Enterprise, took a public position on an issue that Davis would have considerable power as to whether or not to endorse. It is inappropriate in our opinion, that Davis or her husband take public positions on political issues. If they do take public positions on political issues, Davis should recuse herself from being involved in the endorsement process. As far as we can tell, this did not happen.

The more serious issue involved a meeting in December 2005 for the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission. According to the minutes of the meeting, "Mr. Gallaudet stated he has partnered with P.G. & E." "If P.G. & E. leaves, it will be like losing a friend. This is a big gamble. I don't want to gamble, or to lose a friend, " concluded Mr. Gallaudet. It is unclear exactly what Gallaudet meant by "partnered." But it is pretty clear from his statement that he had rather strong business ties to PG&E, possibly had financial ties as well, and clearly retained strong political support for the electrical company.

A more general problem with the Davis Enterprise is the very strong ties Debbie Davis has to the business community. Debbie Davis is the immediate past chair of the Davis Chamber of Commerce. Bruce Gallaudet serves on the board of directors of the Chamber. In June of 2006, the Chamber of Commerce supported the Second Street Crossing project (popularly known as Target). Sherry Puntillo, who is the CEO of the Chamber, explained in the Davis Enterprise that the Chamber supported Target in June when it was before the council, but now is neutral.

Indeed, according to an email we received from a member of the Chamber, the Chamber had no notification to the public about their changed stance. Not on their website. No in their newsletter. Not in a press release. It is unclear when or how they changed their stance, but apparently they did. Meanwhile their members like Sherry Puntillo and her husband, former Council member Ted Puntillo continue to strongly support Target and Measure K. Puntillo is featured on the TV ad that has been bombarding Davis TV for the past few weeks.

Meanwhile not surprisingly last Sunday, the Davis Enterprise Endorsed Measure K in support of a Davis Target.

Debbie Davis and Bruce Gallaudet's leadership positions with the Chamber of Commerce seems to put her in conflict with her other duty to the public in the form of fair endorsements. Editorial boards of course are paid to give their opinion. However, there should be a reasonable expectation that the Editor does not have other commitments either political or business that would cloud her judgment.

Is Davis well-served by having an Editor with such strong ties to the business community? Recall that the Davis Enterprise endorsed Measure X, a measure that 60% of Davis Residents opposed. Recall that the Davis Enterprise endorsed Ruth Asmundson and Mike Levy. Davis residents supported Ruth Asmundson and Lamar Heystek. So it seems to a large degree that the Davis Enterprise is out of step with the Davis voter.

Those things happen in small towns, however, it seems inappropriate for the Davis Enterprise to be weighing in on issues when the commitments of the editor's husband or the editor herself overlap with the commitments of being an editor. Debbie Davis should have recused herself from endorsing on Measure H & I. And Debbie Davis and her husband should avoid taking public positions on policy issues that affect the City of Davis or the County of Yolo.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting