Should a Reporter Cover the GOP, Politics if He Interned with Obama During His Student Days?

Should students’ past internships impact their journalism work and the areas they report on?

Some factions of the conservative press are howling a resounding yes, while lodging criticism at The New York Times for allowing a recent Princeton University graduate with a politically-tinged and Democrat-leaning internship history to report on the GOP.

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As The Washington Post shares, while at Princeton, Teddy Schleifer fleshed out his classwork with a number of journalism experiences — including a Philadelphia Inquirer internship and a stint as news editor for The Daily Princetonian. He also spent summer 2012 in Chicago at the Obama for America headquarters, writing speeches and helping the president’s reelection efforts. The previous summer he was a speechwriting intern within the U.S. Department of Education, assisting Obama’s selected education secretary Arne Duncan. And in high school Schleifer carried out similar speechwriting duties for the governor of Delaware, also a Democrat.

Yesterday, as a reporting fellow, he wrote a story for the Times on GOP politics in Mississippi. Some conservatives are calling the story, ahem, less than objective and they have some guesses why — see tweet below.

Do Schleifer’s undergrad internships really represent a true conflict of interest? And in a related sense, should a journalist’s work and extracurriculars prior to their college graduation be held to the same sniffing-for-bias scrutiny as their full-time, post-grad jobs or affiliations?

After all, it could be argued, most students are simply looking for the most prominent, well-paid, résumé-padding or geographically-friendly gigs they can grab during their school days — politics be damned. To that end, Schleifer may have simply wanted to work in government or try speechwriting in the nation’s capital, landed a Dept. of Education internship and used that connection to secure a cool job the next summer in Chicago working for a sitting president who happens to be a Democrat.

That could be fantasy of course. But regardless of Schleifer’s actual motivations (he’s not commenting at the moment), the political perception in some circles is that the Times has an “Obama campaign worker” covering the GOP.

The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi: “News organizations typically try to avoid conflicts of interest lest they lead readers and viewers to perceive bias in their reporting.”

The Times though, at least for now, is standing by Schleifer: “We are confident that his work for us is solid, accurate and fair, and that we can avoid any potential conflicts of interest.”

What do you think? Are the conservative camp’s concerns about Schleifer’s potential reporting biases overblown? Or should his internship history preclude him from covering politics during his professional career?

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