Politics and publishing — Dallas County Recorder chooses to violate media industry code of ethics6/11/2014
Elected officials should not be members of the media. Period.
Chad Airhart, in his first term as the Dallas County Recorder, has apparently found time to also jump into the media business. He now serves as the publisher and co-owner of a glossy magazine that was mailed to select homes of “middle to upper incomes” in areas of Waukee last week, apparently assuming that residents in households with lower to middle incomes don’t read articles or need to buy the goods and services of local businesses.
Goldfinch Media LLC, which filed with the Secretary of State on Feb. 13, owns the magazine. Airhart and Jason D. McArtor are listed as the organizing members. Airhart told Cityview a few weeks ago that he was simply “working behind the scenes, doing billing stuff,” but the magazine’s first issue includes a full-page publisher’s column and photo of Airhart. That may not seem like a big deal to most people, but it violates an important industry ethic, one that says political involvement and media involvement should never cross — and for good reason.
But first here’s a little about Airhart and his Goldfinch Media. The certificate of organization states that the business is operated out of 854 S.E. Mulberry Lane in Waukee, a 1,384-square-foot home listed as the residence of Airhart and his wife, Jodi. The home is currently assessed at $126,200, presumably not meeting the criteria for his mail distribution.
The magazine was to originally launch on Feb. 15 of this year, according to promotional materials, but was delayed at least twice, presumably due to lack of advertising support.
Airhart, a vocal Republican who talks proudly of smoking cigars and carrying a handgun, isn’t shy about seeking media coverage, which was quite obvious in his recent jockeying for camera and stage time with the Joni Ernst campaign.
A Waukee resident asked Cityview how the Dallas County recorder could possibly have enough time to venture into what should be another full-time job: “Doesn’t he have enough to do? Do the taxpayers in the county know this?”
The answer to both questions? Apparently not.
Back to the ethics thing. Most media companies, including Big Green Umbrella Media, which owns and publishes Cityview, have a formal code of ethics that forbids staff members from running for public office or taking public stands on political matters. The reason is to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict. That’s standard practice in the industry, and it should be. Besides, politicians clearly should not personally benefit from the mass coverage in any form of media that they may own, or vice versa. Credible media companies have a responsibility to abide by this, and credible politicians should avoid the potential campaign finance issues, too. Just imagine KCCI’s Kevin Cooney also serving as a Des Moines city council person. Or WHO Radio’s Van Harden as the Polk County Auditor. Or The Des Moines Register’s publisher Rick Green as a Polk County Board of Supervisor. And none of these is an owner of a media company, making the Airhart situation even more disturbing.
Ponder this, too: If Airhart, as a member of the media, needed to make a Freedom of Information request to the county, would he send it to himself?
Cityview asked Airhart if his publishing company had a code of ethics. He paused awkwardly and said, “We’ve not established it. We don’t have any employees right now.”
The eight people listed in the magazine are then, presumably, independent contractors, but they are still staff members and should be subject to a code of ethics.
When asked whether or not he feels any member of the media should also serve as an elected official, Airhart added that he sees “no conflict of interest whatsoever with my involvement with that.”
One might assume that the Dallas County Board of Supervisors would have a policy in place to keep their elected officials from entering into media ownership. Dallas County supervisor Mark Hanson told Cityview last week, “Not that I am aware of. But we can’t preclude an employee of the county from having a second income.”
A second income, maybe not. If Airhart wanted to deliver pizzas on nights and weekends, that’s certainly acceptable. But being a member of the media, let alone the owner of any local media, creates an awkward set of problems that the supervisors should address.
“The only thing we have control over is his budget to conduct the business of the county,” Hanson said. “He has to face the voters.”
Fair enough, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern for Airhart — at least not yet. He ran unopposed in the June 3 Republican primary, and no candidate filed papers for the Democratic primary either, meaning Airhart will run without any formal opposition in the general election — although a write-in candidate or two could still surface.
In regards to the budget of the recorder’s office, a rather large part of it is Airhart’s annual salary, which will be raised to $71,121.62 starting July 1. That level of compensation is clearly not intended for a part-time job.
Airhart is a newcomer to the media industry and to politics. He has no prior publishing experience, and he is in his first term as an elected official. Even so, ignorance is not an excuse to compromise longstanding ethical codes. Airhart needs to choose between politics and publishing. He owes that to the taxpayers of Dallas County and to media professionals everywhere. If he doesn’t, the voters of Dallas County — or the readers and advertisers of his magazine — may very well do it for him. CV