Crossing the Line Between Reporting and Lobbying
By Terence A. Dalton
Terence A. Dalton teaches journalism at Western Maryland College.
Newspaper reporters routinely make telephone calls to gather news, but when veteran Baltimore Sun reporter Arch Parsons made a few calls he ended up making news.
Parsons got himself entangled in a conflict of interest after learning that President Bush might nominate Clarence Thomas to fill a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy. Parsons, who is black, decided he might be able to help Thomas secure the nomination by using his connections with two influential acquaintances: Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Clint Bolick, a conservative Washington attorney who had worked for Thomas and who had ties to the White House. Without consulting his editors, Parsons stepped out of his journalist's role and called both men, hoping that a meeting between Hooks and Thomas might make Hooks less inclined to oppose his nomination.
What prompted Parsons, who later wrote nearly 40 stories about Thomas, to abandon standard journalistic neutrality? "I wanted Clarence Thomas nominated because I felt strongly that a black had to remain on the Supreme Court," he explains. Parsons also feared that if the president were given some reason to pull back on the nomination – such as opposition from civil rights groups – the result would be "a non-black [nominee] to the right of Thomas."
Parsons' actions remained unknown to his editors and unreported until June – five months after the 66-year-old reporter had left the Sun as part of a voluntary buyout program. Then came publication of "Capitol Games: Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and the Story of a Supreme Court Nomination," by two former Sun reporters, Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz. The book suggests that by lobbying Hooks – and keeping Bolick and the White House informed of Hooks' neutral position toward the impending nomination – Parsons calmed the administration's fear that civil rights groups would immediately oppose it. According to Phelps and Winternitz, Bolick told the White House that Hooks "wouldn't draw the line against Thomas" on June 30, 1991 – the day before Bush nominated him.
Parsons says his role is "overdrawn to a considerable extent" by the authors. Hooks says the book's charge that he tried to steer the NAACP away from opposing Thomas is "a very dramatic and despicable lie." In fact, the NAACP board, after first delaying a vote on the nomination, voted 49-1 to oppose Thomas.
In retrospect, Parsons admits to being guilty of a grave conflict of interest – although not a calculated one. "I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about how I could get involved in this," he says. "I won't say [the idea] was off the top of my head, but it was close to that."
Calculated or not, publication of "Capitol Games" embarrassed both Parsons and the Sun. No one could accuse the newspaper of underplaying the allegations against its former reporter: The Sun featured a front page story detailing the charges, a lengthy excerpt from the book, a follow-up story the next day, and a long op-ed piece by Sun Ombudsman Ernest F. Imhoff the following Sunday. To emphasize the point, Sun Editor John S. Carroll quickly sent a memo to his staff: "You cannot work as a journalist and as a political player at the same time.... Our credibility cannot endure if our reporters, editors and others try to manipulate the outcome of the issues they cover."
Carroll agrees that Sun coverage of Parsons' mistake bordered on the excessive. "We're constantly nagging politicians and public officials about conflicts of interest," he explains, "so in a situation like this, we'll err on the side of overplaying it [rather] than underplaying it."
As for stories he wrote about Thomas, Parsons says he's sure that none reflected any bias. And after reviewing them, Ombudsman Imhoff came to the same conclusion. In a letter of apology to Carroll and the Sun staff, Parsons wrote, "The wrong, the consequences and the sheer stupidity of what I have done are finally getting through to me." ###