On a recent evening, US Rep. Martin Heinrich's campaign staff barred Rob Nikolewski, the editor of the politics website Capitol Report New Mexico, from a press availability with US Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who appeared at a Heinrich fundraiser in Santa Fe.
Nikolewski tells SFR he requested access to the interview but did not hear back from Heinrich spokeswoman Whitney Potter. So he showed up at Rio Chama Steakhouse, where Potter told him that, since Kerry had a limited amount of time, she had set up "one-on-ones" with reporters from certain newspapers, including SFR.
"The senator's time is really limited," Potter says in the exchange, which Nikolewski recorded.
"It just seems unfair, Whitney," Nikolewski replies. "I've been very fair to you guys..."
"Would you say that you're with a media outlet?" Potter replies. "These folks are with newspapers that have been around for a long time. You're funded by a libertarian think tank."
The exchange underscores a crucial issue in the rapidly shifting world of new media. As traditional media outlets struggle to survive (witness the recent demise of Newsweek's print edition), they're losing ground to nontraditional outlets like blogs and websites. With new media, in turn, come new funding models—sometimes ideological organizations like the libertarian think tanks that support Capitol Report. All of this raises a fundamental question: What actually counts as journalism?
OK, OK—we know you don't spend your Saturday nights sitting around thinking about the future of journalism. But David Weiss, an assistant professor in the University of New Mexico's Department of Communication and Journalism, makes a compelling case for why this matters, especially when it comes to issues like elections.
"There's almost no such thing as person-to-person politics anymore," Weiss says. It's a focal point of a political communications course he's teaching.
"We all have such strong opinions about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney—we think we know who these people are…" he explains. "Very few of us ever have shaken hands with either candidate, been in a room with a candidate. So our entire experience of all the candidates—the political process, the coverage, the biases—is all through the media."
In traditional news outlets, funding sources—generally various advertisers—are kept separate from journalists in order to avoid the appearance or possibility of a conflict of interest. In new media outlets, roles can sometimes shift, lending the appearance of bias even where it doesn't exist.
Nikolewski—an award-winning sports reporter with a master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University—assures SFR that Capitol Report's coverage is even-handed. But—as Potter pointed out—it's funded by two libertarian think tanks, the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation and the Virginia-based Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.
The Rio Grande Foundation describes itself as a "research institute dedicated to increasing liberty and prosperity for all of New Mexico's citizens." Its website goes on to state, "We do this by informing New Mexicans of the importance of individual freedom, limited government, and economic opportunity."
Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing says the Franklin Center helps fund both Capitol Report and New Mexico Watchdog, another website that publishes Nikolewski's reporting.
The Franklin Center, a nonprofit whose president, Jason Stverak, is a former Republican party official, has a chain of websites similar to New Mexico Watchdog. Together, those sites provide "10 percent of all daily reporting from state capitals nationwide," the center claims. The Franklin Center didn't respond to SFR's request for comment, but Gessing says the Rio Grande Foundation doesn't impose any editorial direction.
"Rob is not ideologically controlled or told what to say by me or anyone else at Rio Grande Foundation," Gessing says. "We're very conscientious of making sure he has complete editorial control of his work."
But his funders also sought a particular type of journalist.
"It's, 'Go hire good—you know—conservative, free-market-oriented journalists,'" Gessing says. "Let them do their work. Be credible."
Nikolewski is that conservative journalist. In addition to his duties at Capitol Report, he writes an opinion column for the Santa Fe New Mexican and occasionally appears on KNME's politics show, New Mexico in Focus. In January, he introduced himself in the New Mexican's pages as "a token conservative" and wrote, "I get my paycheck from the Rio Grande Foundation, the free-market think-tank based in Albuquerque, and I generally agree with Thomas Jefferson's dictum that the government that governs least, governs best."
Nikolewski tells SFR in an email that he classifies his views as "more libertarian than anything else." Noting that he hasn't "cornered the market on truth," he says he will "listen to others who see the world differently with respect."
"I think that may explain why I have good relations with Roundhouse Democrats and liberals," he writes. "If I'm advocating for anyone, it's New Mexico taxpayers who deserve to know how their dollars are being spent—regardless of their political orientation."
But writing opinion columns and working for news outlets funded by ideological organization can nonetheless render journalists guilty by association. Weiss, for instance, points out that "think tanks are just not what they used to be."
"I mean, think tanks used to be—and to some degree still are—institutions maybe affiliated with the university to study certain issues," he says. "But more and more, they've been developed to be the intellectual voice of a party or the intellectual voice of an ideology."
In the exchange at Rio Chama, Nikolewski attempts to fend off Potter's question of whether he works for a credible media outlet, noting he has "an office in the Roundhouse."
"And that's why I keep you updated on things," Potter replies.
Potter led reporters from SFR, the Santa Fe New Mexican, the Albuquerque Journal and Texas-New Mexico Newspapers down to Rio Chama's wine cellar, where Kerry fielded a question from each outlet in the brief interview, which lasted a little more than 10 minutes. Heinrich sat at the table by his side, occasionally chiming in, and the duo then briefly appeared on TV cameras upstairs before entering the fundraiser, which was closed to reporters. (The Heinrich campaign invited one staff writer from SFR; both showed up and were granted access, but together were allowed only one question.)
Kevin Smith, the national ethics committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists, says he receives "continued calls or emails" about conflicts of interest, particularly when it comes to journalists showing their political stripes. He thinks journalists should maintain the appearance of objectivity by not engaging in political activity, lest more "subjective, theory-based, or ideological-based" media take hold.
"I think every time journalists in this country succumb to, you know, issues of conflicts and give up their independence," he says, "…they're allowing the political rhetoric to take hold of them and they don't focus on those issues of truth and fairness."
But politicians may also exclude journalists with opposing views in an attempt to cultivate friendly messaging—a tactic Smith says is "not fair or appropriate." He hopes things don't reach a point where left-leaning politicians only allow left-leaning outlets to cover them—and vice versa.
"I don't think that benefits the American public at all," he says.
Gessing, for his part, points out that, even among journalists, "ideology is a reality."
"You work for the Santa Fe Reporter," he says. "I think you guys do very good work, but anyone who is honest would say that the Reporter is generally coming from a liberal perspective."
Journalistic Ethics at SFR
SFR adheres to the Society for Professional Journalists' code of ethics, which states that journalists should "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived" and shun "political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity." SFR reporters do not write opinion columns. They are discouraged from political activity and are expected to maintain balance and objectivity in every story. Our primary goal is to seek the truth and ask hard questions of those in power, regardless of party affiliation.