By Roberta Millstein, Rik Keller, and Colin Walsh
Having raised concerns about the Davis Vanguard’s upcoming fundraising event in previous Davisite articles (see here, here, and here), we were gratified to see the Davis Enterprise bring the full moral authority of actual journalists to bear on our concerns regarding ethics and access in a pair of Sunday articles, one by reporter Tanya Perez and one a stinging “Our View” editorial op-ed.
We note that the advertisement of this event has undergone a number of changes subsequent to the publication of each of our articles and our comments at the Davis City Council meeting of April 23rd. The event went from having Mayor Brett Lee as a “host,” to having four councilmembers “featured” with each speaking and participating in a Q & A session (with Will Arnold there “in spirit”). And now it has been scaled back to a speaking-only event with no mention of Q & As. The Enterprise’s coverage of this event suggests that event will be even more attenuated than that, with Councilmember Lucas Frerichs saying that he can “only stay a short time at this event because he has another to attend” and Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida saying that she “might not speak at all.”
In another change, the advertisement for the event includes a list of additional event sponsors, including Davis school board members, a member of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, likely City Council candidate Linda Deos (committee created for 2020), and other well-known community figures, including many who have a direct connection to the Vanguard as Board of Directors and Editorial Board members.
The Vanguard claims to be thrilled with the negative press this event is drawing. In his 4/28 “Premium Newsletter” Vanguard founder David Greenwald brags that “if I could have planned this I would win an award in the annals of guerrilla marketing 101.” Greenwald claims that he got “41 additional people to sign up as co-sponsors” as a result of the bad press, but that is not what we are hearing from some of the people the Vanguard now claims are co-sponsors. Many of these commitments were made before the Enterprise articles went to press, and given that the Enterprise and our conversations with elected officials indicated that the Vanguard may have misrepresented what councilmembers actually agreed to do in the first place, we would not be surprised to find similar ongoing misrepresentations about what sponsors have been told.
But adding more names and changing the event around can’t put lipstick on this pig. The pig is still a pig, and the Enterprise’s editorial op-ed pulls no punches in pointing out the multiplicity of problems in both the Council’s and the Vanguard’s actions. Here are some selected quotes, with our emphasis added:
It’s all pretty sordid, and on the face of it, looks like a crass case of selling access to donors.
As it happens, Lee and Frerichs tell us that they won’t be taking questions. So maybe there was a communication breakdown, or the Vanguard is selling its donors a bill of goods. Maybe the confusion is the point.
Whether or not they know the specifics of what they’re getting into, it does not excuse the fact that council members are helping to raise money for a media company that covers City Council meetings … from someone who, in theory anyway, is supposed to be holding them accountable. On both sides of the ledger, this is a stunning lapse in judgment.
What is happening instead at this event is a favor indeterminate value — the use of the council members’ standing in the community as leverage for the Vanguard to raise money from other people. It is the definition of influence peddling.
We hope they can come to the realization that amateur-hour stunts like this fundamentally do a great harm to local media, by confusing coverage with activism and creating the impression that politicians and journalists alike are in the business of exchanging favors for their own ends.
We agree wholeheartedly with this op-ed. We further note that of all the councilmembers, Mayor Brett Lee seems the most in touch with the concerns, and the Enterprise articles quote others as conceding that there are some issues as well. Again, we are gratified to see these acknowledgements of our concerns.
However, even with the changes to the event and acknowledgements of issues we believe that the event's basic problems with ethics and access remain. The event is still being advertised with a recommended donation, using a picture of the five councilmembers in the Council chambers. Furthermore, because this event will not be properly noticed and agendized, the Brown Act concerns remain if any City issues are discussed while more than three councilmembers are present, even if only one councilmember speaks—merely receiving information from another councilmember on an issue over which they have jurisdiction is problematic according to the California Attorney General.
More importantly, the Vanguard is not any old 501(c)(3). It purports to be a “news reporting organization,” one that covers Council actions among other topics, and thus should be separate from fundraising by our elected officials, as even Greenwald himself seems to acknowledge (as reported by the Enterprise).
And even if it is true that the Vanguard's articles are not always in support of councilmembers' actions (as councilmembers or as candidates for re-election), that is not enough to prevent a conflict of interest. This is akin to saying, "trust me – I will provide fair and balanced reporting no matter what my entanglements with the subjects I am reporting on." We believe, as does the Society of Professional Journalists, that we shouldn't have to have this kind of blind trust, and that the members of Council should keep more distance from the local news media. Actually, it's an obligation on both sides to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
We call on everyone associated with the Vanguard fundraiser – members of the City Council and event sponsors alike – to withdraw their support from this troubled and disgraceful event.
In addition, we urge that the Council, School Board, and County Supervisors adopt policies stating that if there is attendance with a quorum of members at any type of event, there must be a disclaimer in the advertisement for the event that references the Brown Act and states that members are unable to discuss or even listen to matters under their jurisdiction.
Finally, we advocate that the Davis Vanguard (and any other non-profit news outfit) adopt the Institute for Nonprofit News’ “Ethics & Practices Policies”, particularly with respect to donor identity and funding transparency:
As a nonprofit, we will avoid accepting donations from anonymous sources, and we will not accept donations from government entities, political parties, elected officials or candidates actively seeking public office.
Implementation of these recommendations is necessary to restore the public trust.