WAMC has learned that The Berkshire Eagle’s managing editor for news has resigned from the paper, citing concerns about ethics violations. The Pittsfield, Massachusetts newspaper disputes the criticism.
Samantha Wood told WAMC that her issues with the paper began with a new face on its editorial board in November.
“Several people in the newsroom were asking why that person had been added, who did that person work for, where did they come from, why had ownership chosen to put that person on the board, and that had been percolating,” she said.
That person is Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative non-profit think tank based in New York City. Cass served as an adviser to Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid.
“This spring that person ran for public office," said Wood, "and it was assumed by me and a number of my colleagues that that person would no longer serve on the editorial board. It’s a basic tenet and it’s laid out in the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists that people who do work in newsrooms and are closely associated with newsrooms don’t run for public office, and people who run for public office don’t work in newsrooms.”
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics does not explicitly prevent journalists from running for office, but it does include the call for journalists to, quote, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and to, quote, “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”
“It was surprising to me to learn that this person was being retained on the board, even throughout their candidacy — and it had been said that they would recuse themselves from matters to do with the office they were running for, but it seemed right then to be a violation of that code of ethics and that concerned me,” said Wood.
Cass, who lives in Lenox, was one of five candidates for three open seats on the Lenox School Committee. He did not win.
Wood says she questioned senior management at the paper — including president and publisher Fredric Rutberg and executive editor Kevin Moran — about the decision to retain Cass during the election.
“I was told multiple things in response to these questions, including that he was a non-voting member and that made his influence insignificant but that his presence was important, which seemed contradictory to me,” Wood told WAMC.
She says the answers did not satisfy her concerns.
“I then was told that because small towns have a hard time finding candidates that we should make allowances, that it would be OK for this person to run because their small town needed them," said Wood. "But ethics are ethics. They apply to small towns, they apply to big cities. Small towns deserve the same kind of ethics that a larger place would have.”
Despite Cass recusing himself from issues surrounding the school committee, Wood was taken aback.
“They didn’t see how the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics applied in any of these cases," she said. "That was shocking to me.”
Wood submitted her resignation Tuesday morning.
“It made me question if this was applicable in this situation, what other situations might we find ourselves in,” she said.
Kevin Moran, executive editor of The Berkshire Eagle, sits on the editorial board along with president, publisher and co-owner Rutberg, editorial page editor Bill Everhart, and his deputy editorial editor Chan Lowe. The board meets twice a month.
“And Oren Cass has joined that discussion," said Moran. "Not as a member of the editorial board itself, but as what we describe as an associate editorial board member. Oren Cass does not write the editorials. He provides context from his points of view, he does not dictate editorial board coverage.”
Moran says Cass provides the paper with a right-of-center perspective.
“I think it’s fair to say that the Eagle’s editorial board is left of center, some would say it would be far more left of that center,” he said.
Moran says the paper was aware Cass was pursuing public office.
“When Oren Cass said that he was running for school committee, or had intended to run for school committee, we had already decided that, at that moment that yeah, we’re not going to discuss school committee, we don’t endorse school committee races, we don’t anticipate even writing about Lenox School Committee issues or what have you down the road,” Moran told WAMC.
Describing Cass’s effect on the editorial board as “minimal,” Moran says the paper wasn’t concerned about ethics violations.
“We respectfully disagree," he said. "I don’t think she has the full scope or insight as to how we see it.”
Moran says Cass became involved with the Eagle by joining its advisory board at the request of its owners. He says the late Bob Wilmers, a co-owner of the Eagle, suggested Cass become a part of the editorial board.
“He’s not writing the editorials, and he’s not a voting member," said Moran. "In other words, if it came down to it and we had to go for a vote on an issue, or come to a conclusion, or come to some sort of endorsement or something like that, it would be the four staff members of the editorial board.”
Moran rebutted Wood’s concerns about ethics at the paper.
“I want to say that I think everyone here at The Berkshire Eagle is absolutely highly ethical," he said. "And we do things in the best interests of our community and journalism and try to lead that fight.”
But what about Cass’ role as a member of the board and a potential public official?
“There’s a little bit of debate in journalism still about that," said Dr. Shawn McIntosh, who teaches journalism at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams.
“In more traditional terms, generally, that would be considered unethical because of obvious potential conflicts of interest in terms of coverage, and things like that," said McIntosh. "The conventional wisdom I would say is that it’s considered unethical.”
But, McIntosh says the paper’s position isn’t unheard of.
“There’s been a little bit more leeway in recent years where people do recognize that — especially in smaller towns, and people have multiple roles, and things like that that sometimes you can’t avoid these kinds of conflicts of interests and as long as you inform the public about any potential conflicts of interests and let them make up their own minds about coverage or about somebody doing a story, that’s OK,” McIntosh told WAMC.
For her part, Wood says she doesn’t have another journalism job lined up.