New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics — a 14-member board consisting mainly of attorneys and businessmen from across the state — doesn’t make many headlines.
In fact, in one of the few recent news stories about it, The New York Times pointed to the five-year-old ethics board’s “perceived lack of activity.”
Last week, however, JCOPE identified a foe that brought it plenty of attention, picking a fight with a group of people who buy ink by the barrel: newspaper editorial boards.
In a rather troubling advisory opinion, JCOPE determined that paid public relations officials who encourage the media to take a position on public policy issues should be treated as registered lobbyists, and that their contact with specific members of the media should be reported to the state.
The opinion was approved by JCOPE at its meeting last week with the following disclaimer attached: “This is in no way intended to restrict a reporter’s ability to gather information or to seek comment from representatives of advocacy groups as part of reporting the news. Rather, this is intended to generate transparency in the activities of paid media consultants who are hired to proactively advance their client’s interests through the media.”
Another way to look at it, as the New York Post did in an editorial published last Thursday, is to call it “regulating the First Amendment.”
“Albany isn’t the Kremlin,” the Post wrote. “New Yorkers, paid or unpaid, have every right to discuss public issues with editorial boards or anyone else they choose. And it’s none of anyone’s damn business if they do.”
Whether JCOPE intends to restrict a reporter’s ability to deliver the news is moot when its actions do exactly that.
While this newspaper’s editorial board strives to form its own opinions on issues and rarely discusses editorials with paid public relations consultants, we believe those officials should be afforded the same right to privacy we’d give any source who wishes to speak with us on background. It’s not as though we’d ever write an editorial simply because a PR pro asked us to — and we think it’s fair to say we don’t know of an editorial board that would.
The irony — that this overreaching advisory opinion was issued by a panel whose core mission is to police corruption in a state government battling so many recent scandals — isn’t lost on us.
Perhaps JCOPE should focus on doing a better job of what it was founded to do. An unencumbered media can assist in that purpose.