Deseret News editor's speech raises questions
Vice president Dick Cheney won't be the only headliner speaking to a secretive conservative policy conclave this weekend.
The editor of the Deseret Morning News, former Republican state chairman Joe Cannon, is also on the marquee at the influential Council for National Policy.
Though Cannon is a former lobbyist and brother of Congressman Chris Cannon, his attendance in his new role as a journalist at the meeting closed to news media sends up red flags, ethicists say.
That Cannon promised council leaders he would not write about what was discussed should alarm his readers because he is shifting his loyalty from them to powerful government insiders, says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, a nonpartisan journalism think tank.
"To have an editor agree to that [confidentiality] sends a really bad message that [journalists] are willing to play by their terms," McBride says. "And that our loyalties are with them and not with our audience. In letting [the council] set the rules and the agenda of who you can quote and who you can't quote - that says to the audience that these people are more important than you."
The Council for National Policy, which promotes "a free-enterprise system, a strong national defense and support for traditional Western values," is composed of a few hundred powerful conservative activists.
Cannon says he will be explaining to the group how newspapers operate and describing the local media scene. "These people don't know a lot about how newspapers work."
Cannon has been at his new career for only a few months. When he was named editor of the Morning News in December he had no previous journalism experience outside his 11 years on the LDS Church-owned newspaper's board.
He promised to keep his hands off political coverage at first because he had only recently stepped down as state GOP chairman. And he has maintained a fairly low profile since, although he sparked a controversy in April when he successfully asked his congressman brother to intercede to help the newspaper land an exclusive interview with Cheney during a Utah trip then.
Though he will honor the council's demand of no news coverage, Cannon strenuously maintains he is going as a journalist. "I'm not in the politics business anymore."
Cannon said other journalists are attending the conference at the Grand America Hotel. According to a program obtained by The Tribune, the only media in attendance will be executives from religious-oriented operations Good News Communication/The Christian Film & Television Commission, Salem Communications Corp. and the editor-in-chief of worldnetdaily.com, an online publication that routinely attacks gay rights, evolution and Democrats.
Cannon says he will try to interview and write about a few of the people attending, some of whom are friends from his lobbying days.
"I'm not pretending to cover the event," he said. "I believe I can do a service to the readers of our paper by talking to some of these people - and a lot of them are newsmakers."
But the policy council's director Steve Baldwin sees Cannon's invitation differently. "He is a speaker and is part of the program," Baldwin said in an e-mail. "We are closed to the media."
"I have problems with journalists ever attending something and saying that it's not as a journalist or not acting as a journalist," says McBride. "Journalists need to be very clear - either stuff is on the record and it is open for being recorded or it's off the record.
"If it is off the record, there has to be a good journalistic reason," she said, such as protecting a whistle blower.
The bar is even higher when the attendees are public officials and former public officials, McBride said. "Whenever you have high-powered people who are paid by taxpayers, there is an even higher threshold to allowing those people control of what you cover."
Political reporters at the Morning News, who were excluded from the meetings along with other journalists, would not comment on Cannon's appearance.
Weber State University journalism professor Allison Barlow Hess says journalists have a role in educating the public whenever possible, including politicians and partisan groups. But Cannon's promise not to cover an event at which he is speaking is questionable.
"It is definitely an ethical discussion I have with beginning journalists," said Hess, who is also the vice president of the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. "Where is that line in the sand? It is something that Mr. Cannon would have to take a serious look at - has he crossed the line?"