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Is The Newspaper Actively Working to Help John Murphy Get Elected?

Note: This screen shot is from properly paid for ads. The point is to illustrate that Murphy and the Chronicle had been keeping a distance from each other in the early going, but have closed that distance in the waning days. This is not to imply impropriety.

Short answer: I personally don’t think so, but if even it was, it would be entirely on-brand for the Chronicle.

Last column suffered from considerable word count cuts that kept me from properly expressing everything I wanted to expound upon. The heart of what I wanted to detail was the difference between political bias and community journalism. Instead, I ended up giving an example of how professional journalism and community journalism overlapped in the district 2 race regarding a story about endorsements.

Let’s shift the focus from district 2 to district 4 in the race to be decided Tuesday among Rebecca Bays, John Murphy and Winn Webb.

Several questions throughout the campaign trail have been raised about Murphy’s ability to establish himself as an independent voice from the Chronicle, and readers have watched for the slightest hint of conflicts of interest.

Both sides kept careful distance in the early days. Publisher Trina Murphy properly outlined upfront that the paper would recuse anyone who had openly expressed support for her husband from the editorial board interviews.

The paper also brought in someone not employed at the publication to ask questions at the forum, although this was a bit of an empty gesture. Mike Wright had worked at the Chronicle for decades with Murphy and had previously written such kind words about him that Murphy’s campaign quoted what was said as part of testimonial advertising that was later removed and Wright vehemently denied his intent was that of an endorsement.

It’s situations like this that raise the public’s suspicion of impropriety. Those who are on the highest alert, of course, are the opposing candidates.

Rebecca Bays recently wrote a letter to the editor questioning why her endorsements were rejected for publication while Murphy’s community endorsements, specifically one from former property appraiser Melanie Hensley, were accepted. Bays’ website also lists a former elected official Commissioner Jim Fowler though it’s unclear whether this was one of the names submitted to the Chronicle or one that came after. “This is not so much of a complaint as it is a plea for fairness,” Bays wrote in the letter.

Another word for the fairness Bays is asking for is consistency. This consistency was once again called into question the very next day when the Chronicle published a second front page story that included information about campaign finances.

The reporter went to great lengths to detail a refund the Winn Webb campaign may have had to issue to a supporter who exceeded the legal limit, yet did not mention that the Diana Finegan campaign had done the same thing the week prior. Finegan has made financial management a centerpiece of her campaign experience and she is the sole person legally responsible to handle her campaign finances whereas Webb hasn’t specifically campaigned on finances and has a legally designated deputy treasurer who handles his finances.

If anything, the Finegan campaign was more culpable than the Webb campaign for these reasons yet for the second time in as many days coverage was inconsistently applied at the expense of an opponent of John Murphy.

Still, I don’t think there’s a grand conspiracy at play. These lapses in consistency were likely unintentional, but even if they weren’t, this is the hallmark strategy of any newspaper practicing community journalism. It has identified an outcome that in the paper's opinion is most beneficial for the community so professional journalism rules take a back seat to achieving that outcome from occurring.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics allows for advocacy, but clearly states persuasive positions must be transparently labeled. Community journalism doesn’t have to adhere to this standard. It can intertwine advocacy and reporting because the mission is to promote the most community good as defined by the paper’s leadership - not to perfectly align with professional industry practices.

Candidates will undoubtedly feel burned by this approach, as I did while handling Mike Prendergast’s reelection campaign when the Chronicle took an activist approach through several inconsistencies in coverage during an unsuccessful effort to oust the single-term sheriff.

Complaining or calling it a conspiracy isn’t the right strategy, though, particularly when the Sheriff is proof it can be overcome. Change will only occur when the paper’s leadership recognizes that a professional, objective approach is a genuinely better service to our county than what advocate community journalism offers, but this would be changing decades of an ingrained culture contrary to what the publication currently practices.

The new leadership is highly capable and will figure out a solution, but right now trust is eroding though that may have been inevitable in any election cycle.


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