We recently suspended a columnist who just won a national award for us.
Mark Harmon landed the Sigma Delta Chi award for general column writing in papers with 100,000 circulation or less. It’s a significant national award, and we’re proud to have published the work.
But Harmon isn’t writing for us right now. The problem is that he’s running for the Tennessee Democratic Party State Executive Committee and one of his opponents, former state Sen. Bill Owen, questioned the fairness of us providing a bully pulpit to one candidate but not another.
In the past, we’ve always terminated columns if the writers became candidates for public office. We figured there was a conflict of interest that would continue even after the election.
In this case, the conflict wasn’t immediately apparent, though it probably should have been . Harmon is an unabashed liberal and a well known Democrat. He also served for a while on the Knox County Commission. We wouldn’t have paid him as a columnist while he was in public office because that would have conflicted with our responsibility to be a government watchdog. But a party office, with no control of government funds or functions, didn’t seem to create the same issue.
Still, Owen had a point. The Democratic Executive Committee spot does appear on the election ballot, and we don’t want to give an unfair edge to any candidate. So we suspended Harmon’s column through the election. If he happens to win, we’ll be transparent about the office holds.
Here are the five columns that made up Harmon’s winning entry:
- Opinion journalism needs ethical guidelines
- Tennessee senators misled constituents on student loans
- Medicaid/Tenncare should be expanded if Haslam’s plan is rejected
- ‘Morally rudderless’ Gonzales outrageous pick by Haslam on judicial panel
- Some farm subsidies and military projects should be on the table