Democrats seeking the White House can usually count on cash donations from some of the same journalists who cover them—though the journalists themselves are not necessarily aware of this conflict of interest and their participation in it is rarely disclosed by their news organizations.
The donations occur through the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America—the umbrella union for guild journalists at the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and other papers, as well as for many TV and communications workers. The CWA has been one of Bernie Sanders’ biggest contributors throughout his Washington career, records show. In December, following a vote by its members, the union endorsed the avowed socialist in his contest with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The dues the union collects from its members have bankrolled other Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi, James Clyburn, Keith Ellison and Steny Hoyer in the House, and Elizabeth Warren as well as Sanders in the Senate. Since 2008, the union, which gives 97 percent of its money to Democrats, has contributed more than $8.7 million to federal candidates, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan aggregator of political spending. While the union has logged $13,500 in contributions to Sanders so far in the current campaign, it is hedging its bets, giving his primary opponent Clinton $15,000, a figure observers expect to increase if, as expected, she wins the Democratic nomination.
Clinton has garnered more union endorsements than Sanders, but the CWA, which claims “700,000 members in private and public sector employment,” is thus far the biggest union to throw its support behind the senator from Vermont. The CWA’s endorsement had been anticipated after the union’s president, Larry Cohen, left his post and joined the Sanders campaign as a top adviser last July, a move noted in some left-leaning outlets without mentioning the CWA tie to mainstream journalists.
Just how many print or television journalists voted to endorse Sanders (or any other candidate) is not clear because the CWA did not release the results of its electronic voting. (Journalists make up a minority of its membership, which includes workers ranging from telecom to law enforcement.) The union said its endorsement process included “hundreds of worksite meetings and an online vote by tens of thousands of CWA members.” Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild of America and a CWA board member as a sector vice president, said that, to his knowledge, none of those “worksite meetings” took place in a newsroom.
Nonetheless, as a result of that vote, “CWA members have made a clear choice and a bold stand in endorsing Bernie Sanders for president,” CWA president Chris Shelton announced.
Such practices are troubling to some media watchdogs and journalists. Unionized reporters and unionized non-management editors cover issues of enormous significance for labor, including free trade, health-insurance reform and campaign finance, which often involves unions’ use of member dues for political activities. While this coverage does not necessarily translate into bias, “it’s a real problem for those who cover politics,” said Fred Brown, a co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee. Brown spent decades writing about politics for the Denver Post and said he was never comfortable with the idea of press union endorsements. He described himself as “incensed” when the union to which he belonged in 1972—which later merged with the Communications Workers of America—endorsed Democrat George McGovern for president.
“I felt it only confirmed the impression the public has about the media, that they were unbelievably liberal,” Brown said. “I’m pretty liberal myself, and I voted for McGovern, but I did not like the idea of a union that represented reporters saying we are endorsing a particular candidate. That just does not work for me with the idea of a reporter keeping a distance and at least trying to live up to the idea we should be impartial.”
Newspaper Guild president Lunzer said he sought to put some daylight between local newspaper guilds and the CWA’s Sanders endorsement. For example, he said, he deliberately avoided the CWA photo-op for Sanders when the union made its announcement. And, although the union’s news release said Sanders had the “unanimous” support of the board, Lunzer said he “publicly abstained on behalf of our members who would feel there was a conflict of interest.”
True, the news media comprise only a fraction of CWA’s overall membership, which includes workers in “telecommunications and information technology, the airline industry, education, health care and public service, law enforcement, manufacturing” and other fields, including the “news media, broadcast and cable television,” according to its own description. The various newspaper guilds represent about 34,000 workers, and not all of them are in newsrooms. The broadcasting arm of the union, NABET, claims to represent another 10,000 workers, a figure that includes writers but not on-air talent, according to the union.
Nevertheless, many of those who commonly critique the press and are vocal critics of so-called “dark money” in politics seemed blasé about the connection between American journalists and their active, overtly political union. Jim Warren, chief media writer at the Poynter Institute, has written about the big-money issue. When asked to comment about the possible conflicts between union membership and journalism, however, Warren demurred, emailing: “Just not sure what I would have to say. At this point, don’t have a factual basis upon which to articulate any opinion.”
Other critics, however—especially conservative ones—say reporters need to be more open about their union ties. “This is a longstanding problem and something of a scandal,” said Steve Allen, who edits Labor Watch for the Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank in Washington. “You often have various reporters who are members of various guilds and they would take a position and the readers are not informed of it. It’s a relationship that’s been going on for years, and no one has called them on it.”
The CWA makes no secret of its aggressive stances on major news issues of the day. The website of the CWA’s Washington headquarters features an “Act Now” section with a menu of familiar left-wing topics. The CWA backs a $15-an-hour minimum wage and is opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Barack Obama recently finished negotiating in California, just as it opposes most major trade deals. It favors imposing the so-called Wall Street speculation tax. The CWA abhors “Wall Street and big banks,” writing in fiery language: “We’re angry. Wall Street and the big banks are devouring this country’s wealth—feasting on our jobs, our benefits and our pensions.” The phrases included in CWA news releases and the like closely resemble the rhetoric of the Sanders campaign.
In 2013, the CWA boasted of the role it played in getting then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to trigger the “nuclear option,” thereby making it easier for Obama’s nominees for federal district and appeals courts to be confirmed.
The CWA was also a vociferous supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which drew widely sympathetic coverage in the press when it burst onto the downtown Manhattan scene in 2011. The national guild’s website and publication, which are more overtly political and liberal than those of local chapters, used columns from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and other pieces to bolster the Occupiers’ case.
The CWA’s financial influence is formidable by any standard, but not as well publicized as the contributions of other big players in the political money game. According to one widely accepted measure, the union’s spending surpasses that of Koch Industries, which is owned by the billionaire political financiers much reviled by the American left and often portrayed negatively in the media.
According to totals tallied by Open Secrets, since 1990 the CWA has spent a total of $44.2 million, of which $43.8 million went to Democrats or liberal causes such as opposition to the Trans-Pacific trade agreement and broader targets such as “Wall Street and the big banks.” That figure dwarfs the $29.5 million spent by Koch Industries on conservative and libertarian candidates and issues. The two rank 22nd and 49th, respectively, among top contributors in that period, although both the Kochs and unions have wider networks of spending and like-minded contributors.
On the Open Secrets list, the CWA also outranks the Teamsters Union at No. 23 ($43.3 million). No. 1 on the list is the Service Employees International Union, at $224.2 million.
News organizations commonly clamor for full disclosure in political finance and often disclose their own potential conflicts in news stories. For example, newspapers and networks typically mention a tie to a corporate parent in stories that touch on that company.
But journalists’ membership in the CWA is rarely acknowledged in print or on the air.
In December, when the union announced its Sanders endorsement, the New York Times ran an article without a byline that did not mention that many Times journalists are affiliated with the union through their local guild. Online, Times political reporters Maggie Haberman and Alan Rappeport teamed up for a 500-word blog post on the endorsement that omitted the same fact. The Wall Street Journal also failed to note its journalists’ tie to the union; the Washington Post, likewise.
NBC News was one exception. A piece posted online and written by Alex Seitz-Wald and Andrea Mitchell concluded with parentheses acknowledging “the CWA represents many employees at NBC News.”
The Times journalists did not respond to requests for comment. Neither Melanie Trottman, who wrote the Journal’s account, nor the writer at the Post, John Wagner, whose online bio says he is on the Sanders campaign beat, responded to questions from American Media Institute. Nor did many other journalists contacted for this article. (Politico is not affiliated with the Newspaper Guild or the CWA.)
Tom Fitzgerald, who has covered presidential races for the Philadelphia Inquirer, said he “was never really conscious” of his union’s endorsement. Still, he agreed there was something “a little troublesome” about union members crafting “the narrative” about people or issues that their union favors. Fitzgerald said it was critical that the press protect the credibility it has.
“It just feeds into this perception we’re tools of the left,” he said. “Everyone approaches the news already these days through some ideological lens, so why encourage it? I’m several bureaucratic levels below the one making an endorsement decision, just a lowly cog you might say, who has the dues taken out of his check. But I want to feel when I’m approaching a Republican or writing about Republicans that they know and feel I have some credibility.”
Some top reporters are actively involved in union affairs. The Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin, who covers the Supreme Court, and Siobhan Hughes, a political reporter covering the presidential campaign, are location directors for the Dow Jones CWA chapter. Hughes did not respond to a request seeking comment; Bravin said he is not a union “officer” but “rather one of about two dozen people on the Dow Jones local’s board of directors.” He declined an interview request.
Many journalists argue that personal beliefs, interests and connections can be put aside in the dispassionately professional practice of the craft.
But guidelines from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Newspaper Guild of America indicate important political affiliations should be made clear to readers.
The society’s guidelines stress that journalists should avoid conflicts “real or perceived.” The newspaper guild calls on journalists to “guarantee, as far as it is able … constant honesty in news and editorials,” while raising “the standards of journalism and ethics in the industry.”
The New York Times’ own internal ethics guidelines say journalists “have no place on the playing fields of politics” and “staff members may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause.” The guidelines add: “A staff member with any doubts about a proposed political activity should consult the standards editor or the deputy editorial page editor.”
Philip Corbett, standards editor for the news columns of the Times, did not respond to emails and a phone request for comment. Multiple efforts to get an editor at the Washington Post to comment were also unsuccessful.
While a union member’s dues do not represent a direct check written out by a journalist on behalf of a certain candidate or cause, they contribute to the union’s financial ability to carry out all its activities. In addition, members are urged to make additional contributions to explicitly political arms of the CWA.
The dues members pay to the umbrella union vary by pay and local guild. According to the website of the Washington-Baltimore Guild, an employee making $900 a week ($46,800 annually) has a monthly dues payment of $57, or $684 a year; one making $1,500 a week ($78,000 annually) pays $93.46 per month, or $1,121.52 a year. From the total dues collected, 26 percent goes to the national union, according to the Guild’s website. And with 700,000 members in the national union, that kind of money adds up, even if the lion’s share of dues money is spent locally, on contact negotiations and the like.
While it is true Sanders has had unparalleled success drawing small donations from millions of people, it is union money that has largely fueled his political career. Of his top 13 contributors since 1989, according to Open Secrets, 11 are unions, with CWA’s $70,497 ranking seventh on that list.
The union contributes to Democrats in other ways as well, with the money flowing from its Political Action Fund, which has replaced its Committee on Political Education and to which members are encouraged to make additional donations. Thus far in the 2014-16 cycle, the CWA has put $698,182 into Democratic campaign coffers and doled out another $999,848 to what are labeled “liberal” causes, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs OpenSecrets.org.
Nor is the conflict-of-interest issue likely to go away anytime soon: The Communications Workers of America has steeply increased its lobbying efforts during the Obama administration. In 1998, for instance, the union spent only $240,000 on lobbying, and it spent only $280,000 the following year, records show. But starting in 2008, when Obama first ran for the White House, the CWA began spending $700,000 or more every year, topping out at $850,000 in 2010, and then going back to $700,000 a year from 2012 to 2014. CWA Communications Director Candice Johnson cited issues high on the political agenda and important to labor, like health care, workplace organizing and free trade, as likely reasons for the higher spending.
Whether journalists will write about it, however, is another issue.
Because of an editing error by American Media Institute, an earlier version of this article understated political donations since 1990 associated with Sheldon Adelson, as tallied on a list of top organization contributors by OpenSecrets.org. The article omitted his Las Vegas Sands, with $70.4 million in contributions, more than the Communications Workers of America’s $44.2 million; Adelson Drug Clinic, which the article noted contributed $43 million, was not the only Adelson spending vehicle on the list.
James Varney is a staff writer for American Media Institute based in New Orleans. He was a member of the Times-Picayune reporting team that won 2006 Pulitzer Prizes for deadline reporting and public service for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Thanks for being here and being a loyal reader. The American Media Institute covers stories other news outlets do not. We recruit reporters all over the world, investing money in translators, travel and document research. We are not a blog, which has few expenses beyond pajamas. Please help us continue to provide hard-hitting journalism by making a tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you.