If you woke up early last Thursday morning and watched WWL-TV, you had a good opportunity to see just how intimate the race for mayor of New Orleans has become.
A little after 5 a.m., news anchor Michelle Miller read viewers a report about City Councilman Troy Carter's call for Police Superintendent Richard Pennington to resign in light of the chief's announced plans to join Carter in the race for mayor. She then introduced a videotape of Mayor Marc Morial, demurring on the flap.
It was one of two stories Miller read that morning about Morial -- her husband for more than two years. Miller delivered both reports with professional detachment, offering no hint about her marriage or about her opinion of Carter's criticism of her husband's appointed chief. Still, one can't help but think Miller knew some inside scoop on last week's hot political story.
Meanwhile, the same might be said of Councilman Carter's wife, a morning anchor at a rival station. For nearly three years, Carter has been married to Melanie Sanders, a native of Dayton, Ohio, who moved to New Orleans to become an anchor at WDSU-TV in 1997.
Like the city's First Couple, Carter and Sanders have long assured the public and WDSU they will take care to avoid even "the appearance of any ethical conflict." ("Honeymoons and Newsrooms," Sept. 21, 1999). Just what that means now that Carter is running for mayor is becoming the subject of hot debate in some media and political circles.
Last month, Sanders appeared at her husband's side on the campaign platform when he announced his bid for mayor. She also appears in one of her husband's five campaign commercials, which last week began airing on all four TV and cable network stations citywide. In the 30-second spot crafted by Carter media consultant Ray Teddlie, Sanders tells us how much Troy loves, breathes and lives New Orleans. "Troy for mayor is an easy choice," Sanders concludes.
Sanders has been on maternity leave from WDSU for the last two months and was unavailable for comment for this story. WDSU-TV president and general manager Mason Granger did not return a phone call for comment on the campaign spots. Margaret Cordes, the news director of WDSU, also declined to discuss the matter. "[Sanders] is not on the air now and she has not been on the air for about two months," Cordes says. "We are really not at liberty to discuss anything about her personal matter or anything about her, personally."
In fact, it is not WDSU-TV but politicians who are offering the most information about Sander's role in her husband's campaign. Campaign adviser Ron Nabonne says Sanders' role in the Carter campaign is a result of a "series of meetings" involving candidate Carter, Sanders, campaign advisers and station management.
Adds Carter media consultant Teddlie: "In a super-abundance of caution, Melanie left the air even earlier than her pregnancy necessitated to avoid the appearance of any impropriety. Troy says, 'Melanie's career is every bit as important as my own career and I would never do anything to damage it. We have been careful to keep the station informed about our campaign and let them have, as a matter of courtesy, all of our advertising materials in advance."
But that doesn't seem to have satisfied everyone at the station. According to one source, many of Sanders' co-workers -- including fellow reporters as well as photographers -- are "aghast" at the campaign commercial.
At issue is the ethics of a news anchor campaigning for a politically ambitious spouse. Says Jay Black, co-author of the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (available online at www.spj.org): "This is the kind of case that the SPJ Code of Ethics warns us about. It is capitalizing on [Sanders'] journalistic celebrity to promote what is very definitely not a journalistic purpose. ...
"What you have got here is a woman who is taking advantage of her position. It is a position that she should have gained by being an independent voice. If there is a perception she is misusing that influence, then it's a conflict of interest. It's that simple."
Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at Poynter Institute for Media Studies at St. Petersburg, Fla., takes a different view. "This is clearly tricky territory," says Steele, who co-authored a textbook on journalism ethics with Black. "You have a situation, if not the reality, of competing loyalties. ... If you have a journalist who has a strong connection to a government leader, both must build high and strong fire walls to protect journalistic independence. And a candidate has to have an agreement with the journalist as to what is on and off the record. In this day and age of two-career marriages, these pressure points do arise. Sometimes, one drops out to reduce the pressure."
As for WDSU, the issues are clear, Steele says: "The station has to accept the possibility of a real or perceived erosion of journalistic independence given her significant involvement in the political campaign."
Larry Lorenz, a professor of journalism who teaches ethics locally at Loyola University, has even sharper words. He says Sanders' campaign foray "harms everyone who is trying to practice good journalism. ... And it makes no difference if she is on leave, she still has her employment with the station."
Michael Bugeja, a media ethicist at the Ohio University school of journalism -- Sanders' alma mater -- takes a more sanguine view. "What I really don't like in journalism is the idea that there is some media ethicist 'on high' who is going to explain what people should do and what people shouldn't do," says Bugeja. "The fact of the matter is that ethics are easy when nothing is at stake.... What you should do is what your values dictate, and then what you should do is live with the consequences of your actions.
"In this particular case, you would hope that the reporter would meet with her supervisors, be forthcoming about what her intentions were, and then work out some sort of reasonable plan to protect her own 'beat,' ... and still allow her to participate in a public campaign." Any reporters who don't like the station's decision "will just have to put up with the consequences...."
Bugeja continues: "Frankly, what I dislike about situations like this involve other media implying that there is some sort of universally acknowledged standard that all reporters must live up to or else lose their positions. That's not true." For example, a number of environmental reporters are also activists, he says.
So how should reporters at WDSU-TV cover a story involving the anchor's husband? "That is something management has to work out, too -- not an ethicist in Ohio," Bugeja says.
Carter adviser Ron Nabonne says critics like Larry Lorenz are merely expressing their opinion. Nabonne, campaign architect of the successful effort to derail Mayor Morial's bid for a third term, adds that Miller's ethical dilemmas as a reporter was not an issue to the Carter campaign. "She has a right to make a living," he says of Miller.
And when Sanders returns to work, Nabonne adds: "I'm sure there will be even a different set of guidelines in terms of how, and if, she could cover her own husband. But right now, those issues are moot because she is not on TV."
Except on the campaign commercials now playing on televisions citywide. Teddlie says that no TV station has objected to the Sanders commercial. However, WWL-TV general manager Jimmie Phillips acknowledges it did raise flags. The Carter campaign delivered five commercials, Phillips says, four of which were immediately approved for broadcast. "With this being a unique circumstance, I felt like we needed to get some advice from counsel on the one with Melanie," Phillips says. "We were assured that it met all standards and guidelines for political advertising." The commerical aired.
Compared to the Carter campaign hype of Sanders, Miller's marriage to the politically active mayor has been nearly invisible since their very public wedding, thanks to strict ethics guidelines required by WWL.
Morial and Miller were married Sept. 11, 1999, after the mayor won re-election. In the words of the station's cheery biography of Miller (www.wwl-tv.com), their "fairy tale wedding ... captivated the entire city, right down to the details of the bride's custom-designed couture gown." Since then, however, the outgoing First Couple has rarely been shown together in published media photographs. In the society pages of The Times-Picayune, for example, where the First Lady frequently appears with the surname "Miller-Morial," Miller has been seen with the likes of Clinton haunt Gennifer Flowers -- but Miller is rarely pictured with Morial.
Miller could not be reached for comment for this story. But her official station biography offers an explanation of how she manages her dual role as crack 'o dawn anchor and First Lady: "[E]ver the professional journalist, Michelle works hard to keep her public and private lives separate. 'I don't cover any stories about City Hall, ' she emphasized. 'And my husband really handles most of the official functions.'"
On the night of Oct. 20, when Morial acknowledged the overwhelming voter rejection of his bid for a third term, both campaign supporters and television viewers wondered aloud why Miller was not standing by her man. In fact, Miller was just off stage, a Morial aide says. WWL-TV's ethical guidelines prohibited her from participating.
Says WWL-TV news director Sandy Breland: "WWL has a policy that prohibits employees from taking part in political activities. It is a policy that's designed to project our journalistic objectivity. We are also very proud of the way Michelle handled what I'm sure was a difficult situation."
Media ethicists are divided on WWL's handling of the situation. Jay Black says the station appears to have taken "some of the right steps" in restricting the political activities of its reporters. But Larry Lorenz is more critical.
"There seems to be inability on the part of some station managements to distinguish serious journalism and every other part of television," he says. "Frankly, I think the public could quarrel with the decision to keep her on at [WWL-TV] because of this perception of political bias. Miller may not be covering the mayor, but the person at the next desk may cover him. A viewer might ask if that person will be as honest doing a negative story. ... And I think the same thing would be true at Channel 6."
Breland declined to comment on Lorenz's remarks. Meanwhile, WDSU has apparently decided not to allow Sanders to suffer the same political obscurity as Miller. Teddlie says Sanders' pregnancy has prevented her from appearing at some recent campaign functions -- but he adds that the campaign hopes Sanders will play a key role in her husband's bid for mayor.
"In this day and age, it is not fair to penalize a professional woman because her husband is in public office," he says. "We are not going to keep Melanie Sanders in the closet."
- Loyola University journalism professor Larry Lorenz says WDSU-TV anchor Melanie Sanders' mayoral campaign foray for her husband, Troy Carter, 'harms everyone who is trying to practice good journalism.'