We don’t want to keep secrets from readers when we talk with political candidates.
That’s why The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board, which regularly meets with public officials and candidates for public office, requires that conversations be on the record. The board invites news reporters to cover the meetings, in the event someone makes news.
Given the controversy in the presidential race tied to suspicions that Donald Trump changed his immigration stance in an off-the-record discussion with The New York Times editorial board, it’s relevant to disclose how The Bee operates. Editorial Board Editor Dan Morain is a stickler for transparency when an official meets with the board: “The whole point of being there is to explain their point of view, so if it’s off the record, we can’t use it,” he said.
And if the meeting is part of The Bee’s endorsement process for political candidates, it is “always, always, always on the record. There’s nothing about an endorsement that is not on the record,” Morain said, because the goal is to inform voters about election choices.
The New York Times says it has a longstanding practice of pre-endorsement meetings with presidential candidates that tend to be off the record so its board members can get to know people as they consider endorsements.
There’s nothing unethical or wrong about that. Nor is the Times wrong to refuse to release an audio recording of Trump’s comments. Indeed, since its journalists agreed to keep part of the conversation off the record, it is obligated to honor that commitment.
But I prefer Morain’s approach, as it keeps things clear, and clean, between The Bee and the many power brokers in the community who take time to visit the board.
It also means we are able to cover the meetings as news events. That happened on Wednesday when University of California President Janet Napolitano visited the editorial board to talk about a proposal to change the system’s retirement benefits to reduce a substantial unfunded liability.
Three news reporters joined the meeting with Napolitano because of recent controversy involving UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi. Bee reporting revealed Katehi was compensated to sit on two outside boards – one a for-profit college under scrutiny by federal regulators and the other a company that sells textbooks. While some have called for Katehi’s resignation, Napolitano was emphatic that she considers Katehi to be “a very good chancellor.” So the question then becomes “what is the appropriate punishment” for her lapse in judgment, she said.
The Wednesday meeting was our news reporters’ first chance to ask Napolitano questions about Katehi, rather than go through public information officers. Even so, an editorial board meeting is not the same as a press conference. Members of the board ask most of the questions (and they tend to be well-informed, tough questions). A reporter monitoring the conversation can – and does – ask some questions but might need to follow up outside the board meeting.
Reporters also are invited to cover endorsement meetings. Given the regular emails I receive from readers who decide The Bee is liberal or conservative based on our opinions and endorsements, we think it is particularly important to keep clear the different roles of our news reporters and editorial writers who are covering or endorsing political candidates.
We expect our news journalists to thoroughly report their stories without considering our institutional opinions. Perhaps one of the best examples of that line of separation is the first political campaign for Mayor Kevin Johnson eight years ago.
At the time, a series of Bee reports revealed a federal investigation into his St. Hope Hood Corps organization and that his personal attorney investigated an allegation that he inappropriately touched a teenage student at Sacramento Charter High School (the teen recanted). But then-members of The Bee’s editorial board endorsed Johnson for mayor anyway, writing that while Johnson “is flawed,” it was time for new leadership in Sacramento and Johnson “has a vision for what Sacramento’s next century could look like.”
This is the second election cycle with Morain at the board’s helm. He said the board will endorse in as many contested local races as possible, along with the U.S. Senate race and all initiatives that make the ballot. He plans to endorse a candidate in the competitive race to represent the 7th Congressional District, in which Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican, is challenging incumbent Democrat Ami Bera, as well as in other contested congressional races in this region.
The board will focus on local races because “it’s clear that endorsements matter much less in races where voters have lots of information,” Morain said.
The Bee’s job will be to provide information, including what candidates say to the board behind closed doors. Especially if they are changing a position they’ve used to build their campaign.