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Contribution to Clinton campaign weighed

The Miami Herald has made a financial contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton. As readers or supporters of other candidates, have you and I just been defrauded?

Miami Herald reporter Evan S. Benn, under instruction from his editors, paid $50 last Sunday to the Clinton campaign to cover a fundraiser and rally by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Benn said he tried to get in for free, presenting himself as a reporter, but was told the event was closed to the media and was turned away. He then made the minimum contribution to get in. Local television stations remained camped outside.

The Miami Herald's decision to contribute was made after nearly a week of what, by all accounts, was a strong internal debate among editors and reporters. The concerns, which strike at the ethical core of a newspaper, were: fairness to readers and other candidates; paying for news; whether to sneak in; and what to do going forward.

Most people I talked with at the paper are queasy with the decision, although they signed on. I think The Miami Herald did the right thing.

The issue was created by a novel situation, unforeseen by most ethical guidelines.

It began when the Legislature moved up the date of Florida's primary, putting it among the earliest in the nation. Fearing hop-scotching by other states, the Democrat and Republican national committees took counter measures.

Republicans will penalize candidates who campaign in Florida by subtracting from the convention delegates they win. That measure has turned out to be toothless. The winner probably won't care about a few Florida delegates. Republican candidates have been touring the state.

Democrats took a different route. The top candidates joined in a pledge not to campaign in Florida, meaning no rallies and no press conferences. Fundraisers, however, were allowed.

The result is that Republican candidates are getting more exposure while the Democrats have resorted to sleights of hand. Instead of exclusive fundraisers for big rollers, the Democrats are creating large, cheap ones that are, in fact, also mass rallies.

The deliberations at The Miami Herald began when political writer Beth Reinhard caucused with her editor, Jay Ducassi. As the two later described it to me, she argued that with 2,000 attendees planned, the Clinton event was newsworthy, even if the newspaper had to contribute. Ducassi agreed and sent his recommendation up the line.

Then the debate broke out. John Voskuhl, deputy metro editor, made cogent opposing arguments. He questioned how important it was to cover someone who wasn't actually the candidate. He later told me: "This one was 50 bucks. What would we do as a news agency when the next one is $150, or $250 or $500?"

Reinhard and Ducassi wavered, particularly when they thought about having to defend themselves later in the fierce blogosphere that might take the contribution out of context. But in the end, those opposed came around to Reinhard's argument that covering the event first-hand was necessary to inform readers of rare local Democrat primary developments.

Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal gave the final greenlight. Reinhard went to Orlando for an important Republican debate. Benn was asked if he was comfortable with the assignment. "I would have had a problem if I had been asked to sneak in, representing myself as a member of the catering staff, " he said. He wasn't. He did not tell the person who sold him the ticket that he was a reporter, nor was he asked. He said that he and an Associated Press reporter (whose company made the same decision to contribute) took notes openly.

Dave Wilson, Managing Editor for News, correctly added this paragraph to Benn's otherwise straightforward story:

"In order to provide coverage of this presidential campaign event, The Miami Herald's reporter had to purchase an admission ticket for $50. That money is considered a donation to the Hillary Clinton campaign."

There has been little reader response so far. So, I called Robert M. Steele, a journalism professor and ethics expert at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. "I'm very uncomfortable with the thought of news organizations buying their way into campaign events, " he said. "Disclosing it doesn't make it go away. It's still a campaign contribution."

He is right, and The Miami Herald's own written guidelines prohibit staffers from working or contributing to political campaigns. But guidelines are just that: guidelines. There comes a time for editorial judgment, and that is what was called for in this unusual situation.

The issue now is what to do going forward. Bill Richardson will come soon for a "fundraiser." The reporters and editors I talked to are not totally clear on what the policy will be, which indicates a need for a written directive. For Gyllenhaal, it's simple. "We'll be going to anything that looks like a rally, " he said, and The Miami Herald will pay if it has to. He later qualified that by saying the paper would take into account the importance of the candidate and the event, and if the paper appeared to be paying inordinately for any one candidate.

I think this approach best serves the reader. We will all now monitor how the paper lives up to its word.