Man with a mission takes on newspapers

Finding journalists' political donations


July 21, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Michael Petrelis has been angry at The New York Times for a long, long time. Since the 1980s, Petrelis, a Green Party volunteer and longtime AIDS activist now based in San Francisco, has felt that The Times is insufficiently attentive to what he believes are the government's shortcomings in fighting the disease. Since March, however, Petrelis has become an online gadfly, seeking to force The Times to reveal what he says are its political entanglements and sympathies toward the Democratic Party. And he is beginning to get noticed.

How did it start? Jay Blotcher, a friend of Petrelis' and former fellow activist with ACT-UP, a confrontational AIDS advocacy group, was fired in February as a free-lancer for the Times because his prior political life was seen by editors to have compromised him.

"They said he had a number of conflicts [of interest] that they said called his integrity into question," Petrelis said in a telephone interview. "To a large degree, in American journalism, we're basically told that journalists are impartial, above the political fray. If you go and look at the federal records, I'm not so sure that's the case."

Petrelis began by investigating Times medical correspondent Lawrence K. Altman, who has written extensively about AIDS, to see if he could find evidence of political activity. He couldn't. So he went online to read The Times' ethics guidelines, adopted in January 2003, and found this paragraph on page 19:

"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."

By his account, Petrelis was inspired. He expanded his Internet search of campaign contribution records, first to all employees of The Times, and then to 50 newspapers and news agencies. And he found a trove of contributions in recent years, including those from journalists and other employees at Time magazine, Newsweek, The Times, and two Sun journalists.

The gifts were largely, though not exclusively, to Democratic causes and candidates. His findings, are posted on his Web log:

Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for The Times, said in an e-mail interview that Petrelis' observations were welcome at the newspaper, and that he is not the only person to draw its attention to potential violations of ethics rules. And, she wrote, The Times newspaper itself occasionally trolls Web sites that track campaign contributions to see if employees' names surface. (Two such sites are www.tray .com and

"Most of the Times people Mr. Petrelis found on such lists were not on the news staff and thus not bound by our rules," Mathis wrote. "The handful of journalists who turned up were unaware of the rule and highly contrite when it was pointed out to them."

But Petrelis is more persistent than most. "He's been a regular component in my life," said Daniel Okrent, the Times public editor who fields complaints from readers.

The 45-year-old Petrelis, who has AIDS, supports himself with Social Security disability payments. A supporter of Ralph Nader and the Green Party, Petrelis finds the U.S. media to be hypocritical. If reporters support Democrats and presidential candidate John Kerry, as his findings indicate, then they should do so openly, Petrelis argues.

Petrelis' survey is not comprehensive; it fails to examine television companies and misses some employees of newspapers and magazines. He does not distinguish between non-journalists who work for media companies, those who cover hard news, and those who write commentary. Nor does his Web-style reporting - capturing data and publishing it online without additional checks - match that of the conventional media.

The study found two donations to Kerry's campaign totaling $900 from Hendrick Hertzberg, of the New Yorker magazine. Hertzberg has written commentaries favorable toward Kerry and critical of President Bush. Hertzberg has also criticized Nader for drawing support away from Kerry.

In an interview, Hertzberg said he sees no conflict between his role as an opinion journalist and his contributions to Kerry. "I don't see it as a true ethical problem," Hertzberg said. "The idea that someone expressing an opinion about a political race is not biased, but giving a contribution is biased - I don't get it. I don't see how you're compromised." Hertzberg said he asked the magazine's top editor, David Remnick for permission before making his gift.

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