No Cheering In The Press Box

Like most reporters, Sandy Nelson of Tacoma's Morning News Tribune is a champion of free speech. But while her colleagues worry about pressure from advertisers, Nelson says the villains in her story are her editors, who shunted her off to the copy desk because she was active in a gay-rights organization. Now she's suing them. "Journalists are like serfs," she says. "We have become the company's property 24 hours a day." Her editors, who plan to fight Nelson's court challenge, say they were just protecting the paper's integrity. "This case is not about lifestyles, freedom of speech or an individual," says managing editor Jan Brandt. "It's about protecting a newspaper's credibility. When a journalist takes a highly visible political role, it undermines the credibility of the paper."

There's no question that Nelson, 36, was highly visible. In 1989 she helped found the Committee to Protect Tacoma Human Rights. a group organized to defend a city ordinance that prohibits discrimination because of sexual orientation. The ordinance was the subject of a bitter election in 1990, when voters repealed it. Nelson's paper had supported keeping the ordinance, but her editors said she was too prominent an advocate and asked her to lower her profile on the committee. Nelson, an education reporter, refused, saying there was no conflict because she didn't cover gay issues. Her editors sent her to the copy desk in September 1990. "Reporters," says Brandt, "should not make the news that a paper covers."

The debate over a journalist's rights as a citizen is longstanding--and divisive. A few reporters and editors refuse to enroll in a party or even to vote because they say it compromises their objectivity. At the other extreme are journalists who contend that objectivity is a fraud because reporters bring their biases to every story. They say as long as they're open about their prejudices, readers can judge for themselves. Most reporters and editors stand somewhere in the middle. They say it's OK to fight for causes as long as you don't cover them and as long as you're not leading the charge.

Four years ago, New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse, who covers the Supreme Court, was reprimanded by her editors after she joined an abortion-rights march in Washington. Abortion issues are part of her beat. After that incident, many papers tightened up their ethics codes, enforcing a strict division between reporters' beats and off-duty activism. Nelson's paper was different. There was no written ethics code at the time of her transfer. Nelson's editors say that's irrelevant. But Nelson contends Chat she had no guidelines for political involvement. As a lesbian, she felt that activism was "for survival."

Many gay journalists struggle to reconcile their professional and personal lives. In April, members of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association withdrew from the massive gay-rights march in Washington because members felt the group should not be openly activist. At the same time, a growing number of editors acknowledge that gay journalists can bring a special sensitivity to their work when they write about gay issues or AIDS. New York Times reporter Jeffrey Schmalz, a gay man who has AIDS, has written moving stories about people with AIDS. He says he is careful to draw a line between reporting and activism. Maintaining that line, he has written, sometimes makes him feel like "an outsider in my own world."

A few papers encourage staff members to be active in their communities as long as they're not involved in controversial political organizations. "There's a big danger to the public when you have journalists who are aseptic," says Art joiner of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild. But belonging to the PTA is very different from serving on the school board. "Some papers do want their people to join organizations, but no paper wants its journalists to be advocates of a position," says Stephen Isaacs, associate dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. For reporters, protecting freedom of speech on the job may mean losing a little freedom at home.