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It is one of mainstream journalism’s fundamentals: The journalist is a witness, and should not allow himself or herself to be become part of the story. If that principle applies to journalists, should it also apply to a teacher of journalists?

The question arises because of the disclosure earlier this month that the author of “@Mayor Emanuel,” the irreverent, expletive-laden Twitter account that caused more buzz than most of the candidates in Chicago’s recent mayoral campaign, was Dan Sinker, an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.

Sinker outed himself to The Atlantic and later collected—on behalf of Young Chicago Authors, which sponsors a variety of endeavors to encourage creative writing by the city’s young people—a $5,000 donation that candidate Rahm Emanuel had pledged to the charity of the anonymous author’s choice if he would identify himself.

Sinker appeared with Emanuel on a radio show and was everywhere in the Chicago media for a few days. The mayor-elect was gracious—as he had reason to be—and the tone of most of the news reports was lighthearted, even laudatory. “How clever!” seemed to be the dominant sentiment about Sinker and @MayorEmanuel.

How clever, indeed. But should a professor of journalism—a teacher of journalists—have been engaged in such an endeavor?

After all, these were not musings in a private journal that Sinker produced. They were not jokes shared among a few friends. They were, to put the most charitable construction on them, satirical commentary on Chicago and its politics, employing the media-generated caricature of a foul-mouthed Rahm Emanuel as the literary vehicle and the digital power of Twitter and the Internet as the publishing one.

To put a less charitable construction on them, the postings on @MayorEmanuel were a gross distortion with the potential to mislead the voting public in important ways about the character of the leading candidate in the race and to skew the outcome in unpredictable and unintended ways.

In fairness, it must be said that the latter of these was more a possible reality than a real possibility. The fact is that anybody sophisticated enough to find his or her way to @MayorEmanuel probably was sophisticated enough to recognize that it couldn’t have been a product of the real Emanuel’s campaign. Yes, the candidate’s real name was used; there was no attempt to fictionalize it as, say, “Rohm Immanuel.” But the photo of the real Emanuel in a mocking pose and the tagline—“Your next motherfucking mayor. Get used to it, assholes”—should have been a dead giveaway to all except the completely brain-dead. On the other hand, if I have learned anything in my six-plus decades of life, it is that there is nothing so obvious that someone cannot misunderstand it.

But even if we accept the most charitable construction, the question remains: Should a teacher of journalists have been engaged in an activity that, by its very nature, was public and thus carried the possibility of affecting the campaign and its outcome?

The question provoked a lively e-mail debate among members of Loyola’s School of Communication faculty in the week after Sinker’s role was revealed. Members of the journalism faculty seemed most disapproving. Faculty from other disciplines—public relations and advertising, communication studies—were more inclined to see justifications for what Sinker did, without necessarily approving it. No one, I think it fair to say, applauded it.

“It goes against everything we’re trying to teach young journalists about attribution, fact-checking and transparency,” said Professor John Slania, head of the journalism program.

Professor Beth Konrad endorsed Slania’s thoughts and elaborated. “Most journalism schools employ former or working journalists as part of their faculty. Most journalism professors are still engaged in the craft in some way by either freelancing or researching.”

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics cautions against “conflict of interest—whether real or perceived,” Konrad said. “As the past president of SPJ, if I had done the same gig as Sinker, my credibility to this institution, to SPJ and to my students would be greatly compromised.”

Professor Bastiaan Vanacker saw the issue differently. Sinker, he said, was “a journalism professor who was not producing journalism, but something more akin to a parody/satire that made fun of a political candidate. I’d see him more as engaged in anonymous pamphleteering, an activity the Supreme Court has labeled as ‘an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent.’”

It is worth noting that Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their still-valuable little primer “The Elements of Journalism,” also draw a distinction between being a journalist and doing journalism. What matters is not whether a person is or calls himself a journalist, they say, but whether what he or she does is journalism. @MayorEmanuel most assuredly was not.

Professor David Kamerer noted that, besides @MayorEmanuel, Dan Sinker created a website that is “innovative, useful, and above all, it is journalism. In some ways it’s a model of what journalists will be doing in the future.” (I would concur heartily and urge everyone to look closely at it.)

“So,” Kamerer went on, “he [Sinker] had one foot in (scorecard) and one foot out (@MayorEmanuel), structurally not a good position for a journalist. Plus, he IS a journalism professor.”

Kamerer noted that the Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics forbids members to “corrupt the channels of communication.” Might that be what Sinker did with @MayorEmanuel?

In a telephone interview, Sinker said he is “not a traditional journalist” and does not subscribe to the notion that a journalist is always and in everything he or she does subject to strict standards of traditional journalistic ethics.

“I firmly believe that when I’m a journalist, I am a very good journalist,” he said. “But I am a lot more things than that. I kind of refuse to accept that we all have to be statues. When we go out to eat, we don’t go out to eat as journalists. When we go to the movies, we don’t go as journalists.”

Asked whether he had, with @MayorEmanuel, injected himself into the mayoral campaign and become part of the story, Sinker said that was not his intent and he was mystified at the passion and intensity of the media fascination with the Twitter feed. “I don’t know why it got so big,” he said.

He said it was possible that some readers’ understanding and appreciation of Chicago history and politics may have been deepened by @Mayor Emanuel, which gradually developed a storyline and contained references that could have sent readers online for background.

But, Sinker said, he was far prouder and more deeply invested in the Chicago mayoral scorecard, which he developed “as a direct response” to the election in last year’s statewide races of Scott Lee Cohen. Cohen, owner of an empire of pawnshops, won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor and then disclosed that he had been charged in 2005 with domestic abuse for allegedly holding a knife to the throat of his girlfriend. The charges later were dropped and Cohen was persuaded to give up his spot on the Democratic ticket. But their failure to uncover this episode before the 2010 primary became a source of embarrassment to the state’s news media.

That episode, Sinker said, pointed up a “vast need for better political reporting,” and his mayoral scorecard was an effort to address that need. “That’s actually the work I’m more proud of and it was more intentional” than @MayorEmanuel, he said.

My own feelings on this issue are mixed. On one hand, I share Slania’s and Konrad’s concern that actions by a teacher of journalism that undermine the disciplines we attempt to teach young journalists are unwise and unhelpful. But unethical? I’m not so sure.

Vanacker makes an extremely important and cogent point, I think, when he says, “Academics’ contribution to public discourse is of a different nature than journalists’ and [is] governed by different ethical guidelines.”

And at some level, I think, it is not unreasonable to expect college students, who can split hairs like the best jailhouse lawyers when their own interests are at stake, to begin contending with some of the ambiguity with which they’ll be dealing throughout their adult lives.

But exactly what kind of ambiguity and how much? To this day, for example, I find columnist George Will’s having helped Ronald Reagan prepare for his presidential debates an intolerable breach of journalistic ethics—and Will was considered and considered himself to be a journalist, not a teacher of journalists. Yet Will continues to be read by millions, including me.

Sinker’s department chair at Columbia College, Nancy Day, said she sees no ethical breach in his behavior. And she likened what he did to the work of Hunter Thompson back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Thompson, of course, presents his own set of problems, with his deeply self-involved “gonzo journalism.” But the mention of his name in the same breath with Sinker’s and @MayorEmanuel leads me to the most vexing of my mixed feelings: We journalists and journalism teachers desperately need to find ways of reporting on things like Chicago’s mayoral race that will engage people, will make them want to learn about the candidates and the issues. Sinker is absolutely right about the “vast need” for better political reporting.

As unsettling as I find what Sinker did and as juvenile as most of the content of @Mayor Emanuel seems to have been, the darned thing got some people interested in the mayoral campaign. Sometimes, wisdom can come even from the most egregious sources.


Don Wycliff

Don Wycliffa long time Chicago journalist and member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, has written extensively on ethics. He is newly appointed Board Member for the McCormick Foundation and has served as an Ethics Fellow for the Poynter Institute.

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