Should Journalists Engage in Politics?

by Diana Tittle | October 28, 2020
6 min read
Newspaper publisher/county commissioner/city commissioner Frances Luna, as pictured on her Facebook page

The simplest answer is “No.” Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself.

—Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee Position Paper

Today, local newspaper publisher Frances Luna will attend her second city commission meeting since that body appointed her on Sept. 23 to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Brendan Tolley.

Luna’s appointment was widely heralded, according to the Sierra County Sentinel, which Luna owns, along with KHCS radio and The Cobblestone, a recent media acquisition. “I received an overwhelming number of calls of congratulations, some complaints, and cheers. . . .” Luna wrote in her Oct. 2 “Dear Boss” column in the Sentinel.

Luna admitted to being frustrated by the naysaying. After all, she had sought this influential government position, as she explained in her Dear Boss column, because she has a “servant’s heart.”

So why would anyone complain about her appointment?

A few local residents had posted questions on social media about whether Luna actually lived in Truth or Consequences. She does. But, even if she lived outside the city, state law 3-14-9 governing vacancies on city commissions requires only that appointees be a “qualified elector,” defined in 1-1-4 as any resident of New Mexico who is qualified and registered to vote.

Luna herself had taken steps to head off questions about whether it posed a conflict of interest for her to sit on both the city commission and the Sierra County Commission, where she has served since March 2010.

Along with her letter of application, Luna provided the commissioners with copies of two pertinent rulings by the New Mexico Attorney General. While neither addressed her particular case, one stated there is no conflict as long as neither elected office is superior to the other, and the other stated two elected offices could be held simultaneously as long as neither “physically or functionally” interfered with the other.

The position of county commissioner is superior, at least in regard to the power to authorize the disbursement of state and federal funds to the city. This potential conflict of interest will soon be moot. Luna will step down from the county commission on Dec. 31 due to term limits.

In the meantime, it’s not clear how Luna can forcefully represent the interests of Truth or Consequences in the ongoing debate initiated by City Manager Morris Madrid about whether the city should receive more flood control money from the county, whose present allocation of those resources she has approved as a county commissioner. This is just one example of the conflicts of interest attendant to her holding two government positions simultaneously.

The situation is rendered even more untenable by the fact that Luna wears yet another hat: that of a member of the press. As publisher of the Sentinel, she has a duty to her readers and the public to ensure that the paper monitors, questions and investigates local government. The media’s indispensable role of government watchdog is impossible to fulfill when the watchdog is also a prominent member of local government.

Luna brushes off the inherent conflict of interest in the Sentinel’s reporting on her public actions and those of her commission colleagues, explaining in her column: “I don’t even edit the stories written about the meetings I’m in attendance at. Someone else does that.” This statement is ingenuous. As owner of the paper, Luna has final say over its contents.

Luna’s family has long enjoyed exclusive control of the biggest megaphone in Sierra County, which Luna regularly employs to amplify her sociopolitical views. This is a publisher’s prerogative. But holding the megaphone AND elected office is at odds with the practice of both good government and good journalism.

Regarding this monopoly on power as praiseworthy, Luna noted in her column that the owners of the Herald were also longtime school board members and that her “late father Neil Baird served nearly 15 years as a city commissioner and owned the newspaper.” For good measure, she threw in the example of a founding father who was a newspaper editor and printer.

“Does anyone remember Ben Franklin?” she asked.

The stubborn fact remains: Since the rise of modern journalism, it has been considered unethical journalistic practice for a person to own, edit and write for the media in a jurisdiction in which the person serves as an elected or appointed official.

The Sun emailed T or C’s city commissioners, asking for their comments on this issue, shortly before their Sept. 23 meeting, at which candidates for Tolley’s vacated seat were to be interviewed. No commissioner responded.

Frances Luna should not have been aware of these emails, because they were never acknowledged or discussed at the meeting or afterward in any other public arena.

Yet, in her Oct. 2 column, Luna divulged insider information that “someone was complaining that I shouldn’t hold an elected (or appointed) position because I own the newspaper/radio station.”

“I am not sure,” she continued, “why people want to restrict who can serve in any given office. They say they don’t believe that someone in office will allow stories that show problems within the governmental entity.”


We grant that Luna believes she has the best of intentions. “I’m a professional,” she declared in her column, using her media platform to defend herself against legitimate concerns about how her public servant roles might influence her paper’s coverage, and vice versa.

Luna went on to describe the tangle of loyalties that, Houdini-like, she claims to keep separate as she attempts to represent the often-conflicting interests of journalism, public office and her community service on such boards as the Sierra Vista Hospital Joint Powers Commission and the county fair.

My commission information stays with me. I’ve never divulged the executive session stipulations or used them for personal gain. I’ve never used my position as a commissioner to benefit my businesses.   . . . It’s really easy when you have nothing to hide and live aboveboard to not be dragged down by the accusations and conspiracy theories, but it doesn’t mean people are not trying to stir the pot.

Luna concluded by asking the community, once again, to trust her good intentions. “The nonsense talk won’t stop me from being the best commissioner possible and giving both of my seats and constituents every ounce of effort possible.”

She did not speak, however, to how she will comply with the following principles of journalism ethics espoused by the Society of Professional Journalists:

  • Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility
  • Shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity
  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
  • Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.

Luna must choose whether she wants to serve this community as a member of the press or as a public official. She can’t ethically wear both hats at once.

—Diana Tittle

Full disclosure: For the past four years, I have held leadership roles in the Sierra County Democratic Party and Sierra County Indivisible. To avoid real or potential conflicts of interest and charges of political bias that would undermine confidence in the Sun’s independence and neutrality, I have submitted my resignations from these positions, effective Nov. 4.

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

1 thought on “Should Journalists Engage in Politics?”

  1. Douglas Winquest

    Out of habit for a long time I regularly purchased both newspapers in T. or C. I haven’t for a long time. Aside from the Herald no longer being published, what changed for me about the Sentinel was a report a few years back about a person who was both Probate Judge and Medical examiner that had attended a death, obtained sensitive financial information from the deceased’s personal possessions and obtained a substantial amount of money from said deceased’s life savings. It was a good report about a particularly egregious situation. I never read a follow up report but found out through others what had transpired after the incident was exposed. I know about conflict of interest, cronyism and favoritism. The smell of this particular incident was so bad to me I pretty much considered the Sentinel the same as Fox news — biased and insignificant. I appreciate simple honesty, integrity and decency in my personal relationships and sincerely strive to reciprocate the same to others. I simply am not willing to take the time to wonder if someone is being honest with me and live by the adage, “if it smells bad, I’m not going to step in it.”

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