"We strive to behave with honor, valor and distinction as we continue to earn your trust and your time," claims editor, publisher and political columnist John Fredericks on the paper's website. "We are dedicated to fair and balanced reporting. Editorially, we often take an unabashed politically conservative view point."
Nothing wrong with that. We're often described as a left-leaning publication, although we've endorsed and praised Republicans in the past. But the problem is that Fredericks is writing about a local political candidate while serving as a paid consultant to her campaign — all without disclosing the conflict-of-interest to his readers.
This morning, the Fox News wannabe showed particular interest in a state Senate race between Democrat incumbent Horacena Tate and her Republican challenger, Beth Beskin. For the first time in more than a decade, Tate appears to be in a tough race to represent the district, which includes Sandy Springs and parts of North Fulton.
In his "Political InSighter" column, Fredericks offers a breathless rundown of the contest, calling out the incumbent for failing to appear at a debate — he cleverly dubs her "Invisi-Tate," ho ho — and secreting oily praise for her challenger:
Beskin has worked the district very hard, she has an army of motivated volunteers, and her message of accountability and lower taxes is resonating with Independent and softer Democrat voters. The district can be won — it went for Mary Norwood over Kasim Reed in the December 2009 Atlanta mayoral run-off, and both Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Guy Milner won it in 2004 and 1998 respectively. Beskin has raised enough money to be competitive and has already done three mail pieces, all poking fun at Tate's disappearing act in the district. [...]
Beskin is pulling out all the stops, and has a huge fundraiser on October 26 in Sandy Springs that is headlined by U.S. Cong. Tom Price and GDOT Board Member Brandon Beach. The co-host list is a virtual "Who's - Who" of the district's movers and shakers, ranging from the Ga. House and State Senate leadership to former Atlanta Councilwoman Mary Norwood, a beloved icon who lives in the heart of the district.
What Fredericks doesn't mention, however, is that his company, Beaconcast Media, has been paid more than $20,000 by Beskin's campaign in the last two months for "campaign consulting, media buying and mailings" according to her most recent disclosure. That's more than 40 percent of all the money the Beskin campaign has raised this year.
Perhaps Fredericks might want to update this little item on the publisher's page:
Our core promise to our readers is simply this: we will never sell out. Not to special interests, not to business, not to the developers, not to politicians and not to political agendas.
In his defense, Fredericks tells CL that his company didn't do campaign consulting for Beskin, per se, but rather media and advertising consulting. He says Beaconcast produced TV ads for her campaign, produced direct-mail pieces and even created campaign inserts for placement in other publications — all traditional functions of campaign consultants.
And yet, Fredericks insists, pocketing Beskin's checks for 20 Large didn't sway his coverage of her campaign. "There’s no editorial influence by anyone who advertises with us," he says, but then concedes that the Beskin campaign didn't actually advertise in the Beacon because the paper doesn't distribute in her prospective district.
Fredericks describes Beaconcast as having "an integrated coordinated media platform," with TV, online, direct mail and newspaper all under one roof.
Now, lest anyone is confused about why Beaconcast's activity here is scuzzy, let us acknowledge that newspapers and other media outlets have always accepted political advertising, with the more principled publications taking pains to stipulate that such spending will not influence editorial coverage. And when there is a potential conflict-of-interest — say, the editor's husband is a pollster or the publisher is related to a candidate — it's customary for such information to be disclosed to readers. It's all about transparency, folks.
(Actually, Fredericks did provide one such disclaimer in his column: He name-checks former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, then parenthetically reveals that Jones is "one of my best personal friends." Really?)
We should point out that there's nothing illegal about Fredericks the columnist rhapsodizing over candidate Beskin in print while making no mention that Fredericks the consultant is earning a
handsome paycheck from her campaign. But, journalistically speaking, it's unethical as hell.
Worse still, he's playing his readers for suckers by pretending to offer an unbiased, unbought point of view. That's especially troubling for a publication that claims to be "the sole government watchdog in North Fulton County."
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