Five states will hold presidential caucuses in the opening weeks of 2012. But while the events likely will play an important role in deciding the Republican presidential nominee, many journalists will be prohibited by their employers from participating.
Unlike in a primary election, where voters cast secret ballots, caucus participants often publicly announce their candidate preferences. While the caucus procedure differs significantly from state to state, one common model requires supporters of each candidate to form groups in separate corners of a large room, then try to recruit members of rival groups.
“In a caucus you don’t just go show up and vote,” said Editor Lyle Muller of the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Gazette, whose journalists are banned from participating in the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses. “You become an agent of the campaign. You’re involved in the political activity.”
Other news organizations that bar or limit caucus involvement include the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal, the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, and Minnesota Public Radio.
Lee Enterprises, a group that owns five Iowa newspapers, prohibits caucus participation by anybody who might be involved with political coverage — which in effect extends the ban to virtually every newsroom employee.
“It’s so overt that it raises the appearance of partisanship on the part of the journalist,” Lee Enterprises Vice President Joyce Dehli said in a phone interview. Even though Iowa Republicans plan to ask caucus-goers to fill out secret ballots this year, rather than move to different corners of the room, Dehli says the very act of attending a caucus puts a journalist’s credibility at risk.
“You’re still there, and it’s a Republican gathering,” she said. “You’re making a political statement.”
While media organizations in Iowa — home of the nation’s first caucus — typically have enforced such policies for decades, the issue is relatively new in other states, such as Nevada, Minnesota, and Colorado, where caucuses have taken on added significance in recent elections.
Before the 2008 Colorado caucus, the Denver Post barred political reporters, several columnists, and many editors from participating in caucuses, and discouraged all other employees from doing so. But the Denver Newspaper Guild threatened to sue, citing a state law that protects the right of all Coloradans to participate. The Post revised its guidelines to allow all employees to take part, but it held out the possibility that caucus participants could be reassigned to other beats or responsibilities at the paper.
“We don’t ask people to give up their rights as active citizens to work here,” Post editor Greg Moore said in a phone interview this week. “But I wouldn’t expect my political writer to be in a room arguing for any particular candidate.”
Moore said he’s not aware of any Post newsroom employee who participated in the 2008 caucus, or who plans to take part in Colorado’s next caucus February 7.
“I don’t think that’s something a good journalist will want to risk,” he said.
One news organization that’s going against the trend is MinnPost.com, a non-profit website in Minneapolis that’s gained a reputation for aggressive political reporting. Managing Editor Roger Buoen has no problem with his news staff taking part in caucuses.
“We view it as your right to participate as a citizen, like voting,” Buoen said. “That’s the system Minnesota has.”
Buoen, a former editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, says MinnPost’s more permissive caucus policy reflects a difference in the values of new media organizations, compared with traditional newspapers.
“We allow our writers a lot more freedom,” Buoen said, noting that any MinnPost writers who take part in caucuses would be encouraged to write about the event and disclose their participation.
“There’s a lot more transparency on the Web than in the detached, formal storytelling devices that are used in newspapers,” Buoen said. “The Web is more of an open discussion between the news organization and the readers.”