Thursday, February 28, 2013

Indianapolis Star Publisher Karen Crotchfelt Accused of Violating Journalistic Ethics By Involving Herself in Political Advocacy Group

Eugene Fisk, who now publishes a blog called Unigov, has accused Indianapolis Star publisher Karen Crotchfelt of engaging in a violation of journalistic ethics by her involvement with a political advocacy group.  I quote from his response to Gannett Chief Ethics Officer Barbara Wall and Star Editor Jeff Taylor struggling to defend Ms. Crotchfelt's political activities.
Karen Crotchfelt
First I would like to thank Ms Wall and Mr. Taylor for replying to the prior complaints. I disagree on a couple points and if you will bear with me I will refine my message, by focusing mainly on two issues - the mass transit plan, and the IMS (Speedway) funding plan.
Obviously there's a difference between the Gannett Ethics Policy, and the Gannett Principles for Newsrooms. I suggest that Karen Crotchfelt and the Star are out of compliance with the former, which states in part:
Gannett Ethics Policy, Part II, Paragraph C: 
Influence: An impartial, arms’ length relationship will be maintained with anyone seeking to influence the news.
Ms Crotchfelt, like Dennis Ryerson before her, is a member of the board of directors of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP, This group describes itself as "a coalition of the CEOs of Central Indiana's major employers and its flagship university presidents". (A roster of member organizations is attached.) CICP uses the clout of its members to influence public policy and legislation. Currently CICP's biggest agenda item is the mass transit plan, about which they state:
"In that spirit, we’ll meet with individual legislators over the course of the coming year to answer their questions and secure bipartisan support for the plan. We'll engage the strong grassroots network that already exists to build even broader community support.  And we'll continue gathering feedback to refine the transit plan as necessary to meet the community's needs."
The Star has overwhelmingly supported the mass transit plan; Ms Crotchfelt belongs to a group that lobbies for passage of the mass transit plan. Do these things go together ? Is it Ms. Crotchfelt's role within the CICP to make sure the Star's coverage of this issue agrees with the CICP agenda ? Is being a member of the board of directors of a powerful lobbying group, an "impartial arms’ length relationship" ? Why would the president of a newspaper be so embedded with a lobbying group ?

The mass transit plan isn't "food for starving orphans", it's quite a contentious matter, one many people see as a waste of money, a redirection of scarce funding toward white suburbia, and yet another example of corporate welfare. Yet the Star's coverage appears to be dictated by the CICP.

The past president and co-founder of CICP is Mark Miles, now head of IMS (Indianapolis Motor Speedway). The current head of IMS is a member of the board of CICP. The Star's coverage of the IMS funding plan has not only been overwhelmingly favorable, but also timed perfectly, as though the coverage was dictated by CICP:
• On February 11, 2013 the IMS funding bill was substituted into a "vehicle bill" in the Indiana Senate.
• That morning, prior to the Senate's action, the Star ran the pro-IMS article "Speedway has earned a break" by Dan Carpenter.
• That evening two news articles appeared on the USA Today site from Star reporters, each presenting the IMS point of view.
• On February 14 the first Senate committee vote was scheduled.
• That morning, prior to the Senate's action, the Star ran the pro-IMS article "Speedway's request for taxing district should get green flag" by Matthew Tully.
It is difficult to believe that the timing of these events was a coincidence. It is difficult to believe that two Star opinion columnists whose other writing is quite liberal, would suddenly decide to craft heartfelt articles in praise of corporate welfare for IMS. And again it is difficult to believe that the Star president's membership on the board of directors of a lobbying group had nothing to do with the Star's coverage of this issue.

Even the Star's straight news coverage during the pivotal mid-February blitz was pro-IMS. The Star left out the ongoing effort by IMS to be sold or bought out, a negative for IMS. The Star included a flat-out lie by Senator Luke Kenley, that the IMS funding plan would turn a profit for the state - the General Assembly's own economic impact document says no such thing. So on both the mass transit and IMS funding plans, the Star's coverage was exactly what the CICP would have wanted. Hard to accept this as a coincidence.

As the mass transit plan works its way through the General Assembly, other Star writers have pitched in with consistently fawning support. On a local blog today I read that Erika Smith has published seven pro-transit articles in the past five weeks. (Editor's Note: she has written on the topic in four of her last five columns.) Star opinion and news appear to combine in service of the CICP.
I suggest Star news coverage and opinion is largely dictated by CICP, or else we have a string of amazing coincidences, and that Ms Crotchfelt's and Mr. Ryerson's membership on the CICP board of directors is less than the "arm's length" required by the Gannett Ethics Policy.
Thank you,

Eugene Fisk

PO Box 19432
Indianapolis, IN 46219
Fisk makes a very persuasive case that Crotchfelt is in violation of the conflict of interest provision in Gannett Ethics Policy, Part II, Paragraph C.  There is simply no excuse for her involvement in CICP.  Even more importantly, Fisk makes a very persuasive case that Crotchfelt has allowed her conflicts to influence how the Indianapolis Star covers the mass transit and IMS issues among others.  At the very least, Ms. Crotchfelt should be required to resign from CICP.  I know a lot of former Indianapolis Star readers would welcome her and Mr. Taylor resigning altogether from the Star given the paper's continued decline in quality and their refusal to have the Star act as a watchdog for local government.

See also:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013,The Indianapolis Star's Content Declines in Quality Under New Leadership Team; Is Indianapolis in Danger of Losing its Daily Newspaper?

Wedensday, February, 26, 2013, The Star as a sellout, by Eugene Fisk, written by blogger Ruth Holladay.


Flogger said...

A very, very powerful commentary. Even back during the Pulliam Era I was struck by how certain topics were reported on, commented on by the columnists, and editorials without the slightest pretense of providing both sides of a issue.

The opposition to these Corporate Welfare Projects of the Mall, Hotels, and Stadiums was never presented by The Star. There was opposition but you would not have known by reading the Star. The architects of these projects were referred to as the "Movers and Shakers" back then - Shaking down the Public and Moving those public dollars into the pockets of Billionaires and the Politically Connected.

The Star today seems to have distilled the poison of bias even further.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Yes, Flogger, and it's only gotten worse. How I long for the days of Dick Cady.

Downtown Indy said...

Things that make you go 'Hmmm!'

Pete Boggs said...

The pretense of journalism is a corporate welfare project for those who knowingly & willingly pay for the Scar.

Nicolas Martin said...

How can anyone get past the glaring oxymoron: journalistic ethics?