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Monday, March 12, 2007 | Popular television reporter Marti Emerald is mulling a run for San Diego City Council or another elected office, a move that leaves her balancing her journalistic impartiality and her personal political aspirations.
The veteran newscaster said in an interview Friday that she has not discussed specific offices, but added that she has not ruled out running for the District 7 council seat that will open up in 2008 as termed-out Councilman Jim Madaffer leaves office. Emerald said she would step down from her post with 10News if she declared her candidacy.
Emerald has been asked by organized labor leaders to run for City Council. “When the subject comes up, why not think about it? I’m a high-profile person, how can I help?” said Emerald, a resident in the District 7 neighborhood of Tierrasanta.
A familiar face to San Diegans as the consumer advocacy reporter for 10News, Emerald stressed she has not made up her mind about a prospective run at elected office.
“I’m very flattered that people have mentioned my name — and to be honest it stokes the ego a little — but I don’t concentrate on that,” said Emerald, who added that she’s been a registered Democratic since she was 18.
Emerald said she recognized that the face time she has garnered on KGTV’s 10News over the past 22 years provides her an advantage that her would-be competitors don’t have. But media ethicists discouraged Emerald, who boasted that her reports “influence public policy,” from trying to balance her news-reporting duties with any political ambitions she might hold.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states that reporters should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” Reporters often go to great lengths to maintain the appearance of impartiality, such as registering to vote as an independent, declining the food or beverage offered to them at events, and insulating themselves from their publication’s sponsors and advertisers.
As a reporter, Emerald has the responsibility to deliver news independent of any groups or people she might try to curry political favor with and absent the perspective that she could one day base her political platform around, the ethicists said.
“This looks like a clear conflict. It could become very difficult for the public to understand what role that journalist is playing,” said Al Tompkins, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., where practicing journalists enroll for training. “When I turn on T.V., who am I watching? Am I watching the independent journalist, or am I watching the candidate?”
Fred Brown, a Denver Post columnist and vice chairman for SPJ’s committee on ethics, said Emerald should resign or take a leave of absence as soon as she begins politicking. “Obviously, reporters have the rights to think about these things like everyone else, but in ethical terms, it’s not a good idea,” he said. “She probably should quit her job. No matter what, it’s pretty much a general rule.”
J.W. August, 10News managing editor, said he “can’t keep people from getting ideas in their heads,” but said that Emerald would have to quit if she runs. “If you’re running for office, you can’t be a reporter,” he said.
Emerald said she will continue to work at KGTV, the region’s ABC affiliate, unless she decides to run. “I don’t see a conflict of interest unless I’m actively pursuing public office,” she said. Emerald said she would leave her reporter position before making such an announcement, but added a nuance that she thinks makes the potential transition more seamless.
She sees her role on TV not just as a journalist, but also as a consumer advocate. But she said that the two roles don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“I’m an advocate and have been for the bulk of 20 years. I think that’s why I’m viewed in a different light,” she said, whose reports have ranged from asking auto thieves for tips on guarding against carjacks to a hunt for unsafe cribs at daycare centers. “I’m a journalist no doubt: I try to stay accurate and fair, and to be doing it right. But I have also been in a role as troubleshooter and that’s how I’m perceived in the community.”
For Lorena Gonzalez, the political director for the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, Emerald’s experience fighting fraud would help her project an image that is similar to Councilwoman Donna Frye, whose longtime activism for environmental issues and maverick legislative style nearly propelled her into the Mayor’s Office. The labor council has asked Emerald to run, but she has not provided an answer, Gonzalez said.
“She has told us that she’s interested in public service, but with no specifics about an office or a position,” Gonzalez said.
But Emerald’s access to a soapbox watched on thousands of San Diego television sets every night worries others. One potential competitor for the District 7 seat, accountant April Boling, laments not having the ability to offset the recognition Emerald earns on TV up until early June, the point when Boling can begin raising money to fund the fliers and mail pieces that will allow her to advertise herself to voters in her district.
Candidates in the city of San Diego can’t begin soliciting until a year before the primary election, which is slated for June 2008.
Additionally, Boling said Emerald could gain an advantage by reporting on issues that will arise in the coming campaign. “For example, what if she does some investigative report on San Diego State University, the Paseo project or the master plan, and in the process she meets community leaders?” she said. “It has the flavor of a campaign, but it’s couched as a story.”
Trash-hauling company official Johnnie Perkins, another District 7 hopeful, said he didn’t have a problem with Emerald’s position. “I think the more people in the debate who have ideas and strategies about how to improve the city, the better,” he said. “With her background, I think it would be a very interesting conversation and dialogue.”
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