Friday, January 27, 2006

Red and Black Reporter Connected to Chamber

A news story written by a reporter for The Red and Black may have been influenced by her connections to the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce.  Sources within the Chamber of Commerce and the Athens Clarke-County government confirm that the reporter, Cristen Conger, is the daughter of the Chamber’s communications director, Dan Conger.

Ms. Conger’s story, published in Thursday’s edition of The Red and Black, covered the proposed redistricting of state senate districts in Athens Clarke-County.  The proposed redistricting measure was introduced in the Georgia General Assembly by State Senator Ralph Hudgens (R-Comer).  Hudgens has said publicly that he introduced the legislation based in part on requests from the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce.

Representatives from The Red and Black and the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as Ms. Conger herself, did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Related: The Red and Black: Sen. wants to redraw lines,” 01/26/06


Anonymous said...

I thought the point of view of that "article" was a oddly skewed.

monticello_pres said...

My previous post appears to have disappeared. Was I de-blogged or is it a technical difficulty?

That post was something like... I'll confirm that Cristen Conger is Dan Conger's daughter. And I don't see the point of this post.

She presented both sides and quoted Hudgens and Kidd alike.

Let's not start tearing away at a young lady who has written an unbiased article simply because you want to find bias in her last name. We're all bigger than that, right?

Publius said...

Ok, but think really carefully before you answer. What if the reporter's name was Cristen Davison, or Cristen Kidd? Would you have posted the same comment?

For what it's worth, I didn't see any inherent bias in the article, which is why I started the post off, "A news story written by a reporter for The Red and Black may have been influenced..." May. Get it? As in draw your own conclusions.

Either way, the fact that the Red and Black has more than one reporter tells me that her byline shouldn't have been on the piece, whether her name is Cristen Conger, or our hypothetical Cristen Kidd. It's shoddy journalism, and whether there's an actual conflict of interest or not, there's the appearance of one, which bothers me, as well as some others, I'd bet.

It's interesting that you accuse me of "tearing away" at her, because I tried to present the information in as factual a manner as possible, and leave my personal comments out of it. I don't think it was biased, necessarily, but I don't think it was particularly professional either. The fact that we gave the Chamber, Ms. Conger, and the Red and Black a full day to respond before we ran the story just makes me think that they know it was pretty unprofessional as well.

Hey, we're not exactly the Washington Post here at AthPo either, but you guys know where my affiliations lie, and we've never made any attempt to hide those affiliations or our biases. If I end up volunteering for a candidate, I'll make sure you know that when I talk about them, or else I'll let someone else blog about that campaign.

Finally, no we didn't deblog you. Blogger has been acting really sketchy lately. I've had some issues getting posts up (via Blogger for Word) and have had to jump in and delete the occasional double (or triple) post from our end.

We don't censor, don't fret.

monticello_pres said...

I didn't think you would censor or deblog. Heck, it doesn't take technical sketchiness for messages to disappear. My clumsy typing skills are often enough.

As for your affiliations, you are correct and consistent. And I applaud that. I think we have - and hopefully will continue to have - excellent dialogue. Sometimes we'll have opposing viewpoints and that is fine.

You can also trust that I am not going to stand on the front lines and take a shot for the Chamber. Their actions make them fair game. I would even submit that attacking Mr Conger based on his own actions (i.e., his email "alert" to Chamber members regarding the gas crisis of 2005) would be fair.

I just see a distinct line in the sand when it comes to discrediting a student journalist because of her last name.

We all enter our days with our own bias. These are based on who are fathers were or were not. They are based on what we perceive to be just and fair. And they are based on what we hold important.

I just do not see this issue important enough to make it so personal that we are attacking and discrediting the teenage daughters of others. And while it is easy for me to say this knowing that the last name in question is Conger - I would hope we would all also take that approach with Johnny Whomever (Davison, McCarter, Kidd, Kemp, Chasteen).

In my opinion, the young lady approached the article fairly and accurately. She presented both sides. She did not make that a sermon for Chamber ideology. And her last name should neither help or hinder her attempts in life.

Adrian said...

This debate isn't even important, but Publius's purpose is to point out the conflict of interest. It is no matter that the content was unbiased but that the writer has a conflict of interest. The Red and Black does indeed have a policy of avoiding conflicts of interest, but we don't know who to discredit -- that depends on if the writer didn't tell the editor or if the editor said OK. Or maybe it isn't a conflict of interest at all. I've contributed to the Red and Black with an arguable conflict of interest, but the editor approved it.

Again, this is not even an important issue, but what's life in Athens without ragging on all the media outlets once in a while?

Oconee Democrat said...

At the very very least, the Red & Black should have written a disclaimer at the end of the article, or more judiciously not assigned her the story to begin with. Or turn it into an editorial column. The issue is not her objectivity, nor is it her journalistic integirty.

IT IS the unethical and sleazy repeated behavior of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce and its employees. Sometimes the appearance of impropriety is worse than the actual crime, which I think is the case in this instance.

Anonymous said...

It's really simple folks, Ms. Conger SHOULD NOT have reported on this topic. Whether she was objective or not does not matter.

Dawg Corleone said...

This is pretty petty. The girl can't pick her father.

Look at her story. If you have issues with it, point them out. Otherwise, you look small. And weak, like those politicos who went to Atlanta and couldn't get a foot in the door of the offices of anyone who matters.

Dawg Corleone said...

This is pretty petty. The girl can't pick her father.

Look at her story. If you have issues with it, point them out. Otherwise, you look small. And weak, like those politicos who went to Atlanta and couldn't get a foot in the door of the offices of anyone who matters.

Jmac said...

Since I think the 'petty' argument is weak, at best, I posted my own take at my blog.

Adrian said...

Again, dawg corleone, the issue is not the content of the story. You are either missing the point or tossing a red herring.

monticello_pres said...

I understand Publius' concerns, Moderator's idea (about a disclosure), and Jmac's points (in his post).

My problem with this concept is that her family tree is irrelevant to her job as reporter. NO IT'S NOT!, you shout? Well then where does lineage-is-important-and-must-be-declared-in-an-article start and where does it stop?

Here we have a late-teens or early-20s young lady who has a well researched set of facts. Her father is not Sen Hudgens or any other co-sponsor (if there are any) of the redistricting bill. Her father is also not Bill Cowsart, who we all assume stands to benefit from the forthcoming redistricting (for at least 2 years).

Should she have included a disclosure when writing about Athens Freecycle and the organized freecycle recycling movement in April 2005?

Should she have included a disclosure when writing about Surgeries with Sonny earlier in January 2006?

Considering this idea outside of the context of young Conger, shouldn't everyone then include a disclosure? Because the journalist that writes about Delta's pilots' union may have been related to a pilot. The journalist that writes about the Georgia football team may have hated UGA, or football players, or cheerleaders, or organized sports. The journalist that writes about the Voter ID bill could have even been a victim of segregationistic philosophy in the past. The journalist that writes about his hatred of Ralph Reed may have been an old-crank that hates all young Republicans. Or the business journalist that writes about WorldCom or Enron may certainly have lost thousands in their stock collapse.

If Dan Conger submitted an article about this topic, a disclosure would have been appropriate. I just do not think that a journalist uninvolved in the Hudgens - Madison Co Chamber - Athens Chamber - loop is required to do so. Otherwise, we are all destined to include a disclosure of some kind.

--- Author's Note: "Monticello" is the son of Bill and Sharon. Bill is a member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and works for Lockheed Martin. Sharon is a housewife but worked for the military previously. Monticello is married with 2 kids. He grew up Methodist prior to joining an inter-denominational church. He attended Walton HS before Georgia Tech and Georgia State. Monticello was a member of the College Republicans but declares no party affiliation at this time. He loves to watch football and to play golf. His favorite color is blue.

Jmac said...

Again ... why are we having this very debate? Because of the fact her father is the communications person at the Chamber of Commerce - a man responsible for honing and disseminating the message of that organization. In doing her research for the article, she would have had to go through a communications liason at the Chamber, which in this case ... is her father.

Folks can be witty about this all they want, that's fine. I'm on record as saying I don't think young Ms. Conger did anything wrong. But, the people who make these decisions at The Red & Black dropped the ball because there really is a conflict of interest, regardless if it showed up or not.

She shouldn't have had to include a disclaimer, because quite frankly, that's silly. Instead, she should have never been on the story in the first place.

I've seen the vast majority of those types of conflicts and issues arise, both in the newsroom I worked at and from hearing other reporters at other newspapers describe them. And each newsroom did its darnedest to play the whole thing straight by attempting to remove any perception of a bias.

So, again, forget disclosure. My problem is the decision-making process which enabled this situation to develop. Which is why I think several of your analogies don't hold any water.

This isn't about 'Surgeries with Sonny' because the Chamber didn't dream up that PR opportunity. This isn't about 'freecyling' because I'm quite sure she didn't passionately work for the organization getting that concept together (if she did ... I would think it's inappropriate).

This instance - this very instance - the story involved the redistricting effort and the supporters and detractors from both sides, with the major Athens-area supporter being the Chamber. It's a controversial issue with strong passions on both sides ... and the decision-makers figured it was OK for a reporter with close familial ties to the official communications person of an organization which strongly supports one side of said issue to take the lead reporting role.

That's my concern.

Dawg Corleone said...

What if Dan Conger were communications director for, say, Bike Athens or the Grow Green Coalition?

Would you be demanding disclosure?

Anonymous said...

Bike Athens and Grow Green would not be that stupid and arrogant - that's one of the big differences between these groups and the Chamber. It's an issue of credibility.

btw - has anybody yet mentioned that this young woman's name actually appears on the masthead of the Chamber newsletters? It does and it has for several months.

monticello_pres said...

"Bike Athens and Grow Green would not be that stupid and arrogant..."

I think we are going to have to agree to disagree about that. Bike Athens has a false sense of importance that rivals many elected officials and most folks on K Street in Washington DC. For a local group, that is an acheivement even if they have few other feathers in their cap.

Back to Ms. Conger. So which stories should she not appear on? As a journalist - but with a father who works at a Chamber of Commerce - should she divorce herself of reporting on any business article? How about reporting on L.E.A.D. Athens if that comes up? And should she stay away from reporting on the recently awarded Athena Award? Oh, and Larry McKinney has a spot on Partners for Prosperity - I think that will be off limits by this logic.

I'm just not sure where her father's occupation limits her individual credibility.

Publius said...

I wouldn't say that her father's occupation limits her credibility one iota. As I've said (seemingly ad nauseam) I thought the story was fine, and she seems to be a pretty good reporter. I echo what JMac said about her writing ability, and he should know.

But her father's occupation does limit the credibility of this particular story, at least to me, and I daresay to others. Not impugning on her ability, or her credibility. I'm sure she'll turn out many other good stories, graduate, and get a good job reporting if that's what she wants to do.

Monticello raises a good point for discussion. Where is the line for an "acceptable" conflict of interest. If I go to work for the ABH, can I never cover politics, even though I flatter myself that I know a thing or two about it? Can I cover a candidate as long as I'm not publicly supporting him, financialy or otherwise? Can I cover a candidate I've worked for in the past?

Is there, or should there be, a definitive line for perceived conflicts of interest? Or is it like obscenity in that we can't quite define it but we know it when we see it?

Jmac said...

Apparently, unlike you Corleone, I don't see through partisan-tinged glasses. If young Ms. Conger had a father who was communications director for BikeAthens and BikeAthens had taken a side in a controversial story, then, yes, she shouldn't be the reporter on said story. Likewise, if 'Conger' had actually been 'Kidd' ... then she shouldn't have done the story.

What folks are doing here are drawing the lines too narrowly. Should Ms. Conger be able to pursue a career in journalism that enables her to cover whatever she wants? Absolutely ... and if covering business fits the bill, then so be it.

But controversial stories are controversial stories, and what determines a definite conflict of interest isn't exactly a science (nor is journalism as I argued at my own blog). As someone who works in public relations for a local museum, I don't think I should be authoring any pieces for publication in any media. Nor do I think I should submit any freelance material regarding the firm my wife works for as a C.P.A.

Does this mean I can't ever write anything for the media, or that I couldn't ever write anything concerning accounting in general? Absolutely not. But it means I have the common sense to recognize a delicate situation when I see it and realize that if I do author said story, it's gonna more than likely raise some red flags.

Again ... 'inexact science.' And I sincerely think those debating against me (and Publius and Adrian) recognize what I'm saying, but are enjoying this little dance for some odd reason. Can Ms. Conger report on Partners for a Prosperous Athens? Sure. Can Ms. Conger report on Partners for a Prosperous Athens if it turns out the Chamber is responsible for some dastardly scheme to sabatoge the group? Probably not.

Not because of any bias she may harbor deep inside her soul, but because of the perception of bias that will result.

Jmac said...

As an aside - I'll say again, disclosures are silly. I'd argue against any form of disclosure from a reporter and would instead opt to not have said reporter on the story in question.

Jmac said...

And, following up what our anonymous poster said earlier, Cristen Conger did indeed author several articles for the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce's newsletter within the past year, during which time the Chamber was developing its legislative agenda which included its suggestion the district be cut in half.

So, while I still think the father-daughter connection is grounds for a questionable journalistic ethic, I have no doubt that someone who was writing materials for the Chamber has a definite conflict of interest.

Publius said...

"As someone who works in public relations for a local museum, I don't think I should be authoring any pieces for publication in any media."

Press releases, media advisories, and other tools of the trade (which a good media outlet will rewrite anyway) notwithstanding.

Jmac said...

And, to further clarify my point, I meant author pieces related to my place of employment.

hillary said...

Disclosure. It ain't just a Michael Crichton movie.

Yes, she shouldn't have been assigned to the story in the first place, but I don't think there's anything wrong with (or silly about) a note at the end disclosing her links to the COC. Full disclosure is even more appropriate in fuzzier cases, where it's hard to say if the reporter in question should have been assigned to the story.