Washington Times Defends Its Opinion Editor's Outside Political Endorsements

The Washington Times is defending its opinion editor's practice of offering personal political endorsements to Republican candidates, which media observers and editorial page editors at others papers say violates journalistic ethics.

Since joining the Times in 2013 after a career in conservative politics, David Keene has endorsed several Republican senators for reelection, either on his own behalf or on behalf of the National Rifle Association, on whose board he sits. Reporting on the endorsements, Politico's Dylan Byers noted that such endorsements are unheard of for editorial page editors at major newspapers since it would be regarded as a “violation of ethics.”

But asked to comment on the endorsements, Times editor-in-chief John Solomon defended Keene, saying the opinion editor's actions were in keeping with the paper's “set of rules to maintain the highest ethical standards for the opinion department” that he and Keene hammered out upon Keene's hiring.

Keene, a former president of the NRA and chairman of the American Conservative Union, says that his endorsements raise no ethical questions because he won't participate in a Times endorsement discussion of the candidates his organizations support.

“As a practical matter, I would not participate in a WT discussion re an endorsement of someone whose NRA endorsement I had previously delivered,” Keene told Media Matters via email Tuesday. “The important thing, in my mind at least, is to remember what 'hat' one is wearing and when. For example, I am also still on the ACU Board and ACU through its PAC endorses candidates that neither the WT or the NRA might endorse or even support. Therefore it is incumbent upon me or [anyone] else involved with multiethnic organizations to avoid mixing the roles. I have always endeavored to make certain I avoid that temptation.”

Keene has presented the NRA's endorsement of Sen. Mike Simpson (ID) and personally endorsed Sens. Pat Roberts (KS) and Lamar Alexander (TN). But Keene contends his outside endorsements raise no ethical red flags because they are for candidates the Times would not endorse.

“We would not be endorsing someone to whom I had delivered an NRA endorsement in my capacity as a former NRA President and Board member,” Keene stated. He added that the NRA's endorsements are made by its lobbying arm, not the organization's board, and that he had presented the NRA's endorsement to Simpson because he was “in Idaho for other reasons.”

Keene's actions appear consistent with the lax standards the Times has established for him. Earlier this year, Solomon told Media Matters that Keene had been hired with the understanding that he would continue his advocacy work for the NRA but would recuse himself from editing Times pieces about that organization.

Solomon reiterated that statement in an email to Media Matters today, writing of the paper's ethics rules:

They are simple, straightforward and consistent with the best practices of journalism aimed at mitigating perceived conflicts and creating transparency. David recuses himself from editing any pieces in his department that are focused on the NRA. He is free to write about the NRA in his personal weekly column as long as he discloses to the reader in that column his continuing role with the organization.  When he acts in his role as NRA board member, such as delivering the group's endorsement, he does so solely in his role as an NRA member.

Solomon also compared Keene's dual roles as opinion editor and board member of two conservative organizations to ABC News president Ben Sherwood's membership with the Council of Foreign Relations and position on the boards of non-partisan groups like the National Constitution Center and the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues.

But Keene's practice did not sit well with media ethicists and those who hold similar opinion posts, who made clear it does not help the Times' image.

“It would seem unwise from a strategy standpoint for an editorial page editor to make personal endorsements while at the same time overseeing a process by which his or her newspaper makes endorsements,” said Keven Willey, editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News and member of the Pulitzer Prize board at Columbia University. “If the two net conflicting endorsements, which takes precedence? And if there are no conflicts, what's the point of having two sets of endorsements? Editors at The Dallas Morning News don't make candidate endorsements outside of the newspaper's candidate-recommendation process.” 

Tom Fiedler, former editorial page editor at The Miami Herald and currently dean of the College of Communication at Boston University, said such an approach would have been a fireable offense for him. 

“Had I, as editor of the editorial page at The Miami Herald, done something akin to what Keene is doing I would immediately have been removed from my position and likely fired,” Fiedler said. “Members of newspaper editorial boards don't speak for themselves, they speak only as part of the institution and in concert with it.  The problem here isn't limited to Keene, whose personal political views are well known. The problem lies with the publisher of the Washington Times for not requiring him to adhere to that principle.”

Kelly McBride, ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute, offered similar criticism.

“It seems like The Washington Times isn't positioning itself as an independent provider of information. Instead, it is trying to advance a certain agenda,” said McBride, who later added, "The Washington Times could certainly be more transparent about decisions. They could explain why their editorial page editor is operating so far outside the norm. These days, consumers seem to reward transparency."

For Alex Jones, former media writer for The New York Times and currently director of the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, it is another sign the Times “operates in its own journalistic orbit and has long since left the solar system. This doesn't surprise me, but I'm sure they see no ethical issue.”