Bay Area New York Times Affiliate to Host Young Democrats' Campaign Volunteer Drive?

Categories: Media, Politics
Sometimes pints and politics don't mix
It's not unusual for news organizations to be accused of bias or political agendas in their coverage. But seldom do professional journalists find themselves in the position of actively helping specific political campaigns recruit volunteers in the run-up to a hotly contested election.

Yet according to some accounts, that's exactly what The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit, online newspaper that reports on the Bay Area in conjunction with The New York Times, will be doing this evening at The Chieftain, an Irish-themed pub on Fifth Street. The event will feature drink specials, pub trivia in which contestants can challenge The Bay Citizen's lead editor and reporters -- and an active volunteer drive conducted by the San Francisco Young Democrats on behalf of three specific candidates in races for the Board of Supervisors.

Maxwell Szabo, president of the Young Dems, told us that his organization will be trying to enlist volunteers tonight to work on the campaigns of District 2 candidate Janet Reilly, District 8 candidate Rebecca Prozan, and District 10 candidate Chris Jackson, all of whom the group has endorsed. Szabo said he has also invited representatives of each of these campaigns to attend and woo volunteers.

"The Bay Citizen, which is the New York Times offshoot in the Bay Area, they had been wanting to partner with us on some event at some point," Szabo said. "This is something we're kind of doing as a fun event, that we're tag-teaming up with them on." He added, "We're not really co-sponsors. We just said, 'We might come over and do this.' They said, 'Yeah, do that.'"

An advertisement on the Young Democrats website states that the group's "monthly meeting is being held TOMORROW in conjunction with the Bay Citizen. Challenge The Bay Citizen's editor in chief, Jonathan Weber, and local political reporters. We'll have drink specials for everyone... Tomorrow we'll also be signing up SFYD members to volunteer with the various campaigns and help Get Out The Vote!"

It's an arrangement, if accurately described, that's sure to raise some eyebrows. The Bay Citizen -- which has produced estimable coverage on a range of local and state issues since launching in May -- aspires to the role of objective news gatherer, and its work is regularly published in that grayest of gray ladies, the Times. Should the Fourth Estate really be showcasing its members as the featured attractions at a volunteer drive aimed at boosting specific political candidates' campaigns?

Bay Citizen Marketing Director Rose Roll told us that Szabo's description of the event is the result of a misunderstanding. She said the Young Democrats are planning to have a meeting at the bar immediately prior to the pub trivia event, but that "the two are completely distinct and separated." She provided SF Weekly with an e-mail she sent to Szabo about the event, which reads, in part:

Meanwhile, we are also having a fun event next week that I think would be right up your alley. It's called "Think You Know Local Politics?" and it's a next-generation pub quiz that will test players' knowledge of local and state politics given the upcoming elections. We've partnered with QRANK, an addictive current-affairs trivia game, to bring the classic pub quiz onto the iPhone or iPad for real-time head to head challenges and scoring.

We'll have drink specials and awesome prizes for the winner (a pair of tickets to any show at the Great American Music Hall or Slim's). I'll give SF Young Democrats priority seating reservations if you're interested in spreading the word to your group.
She also said she had "reached out" to the Young Republicans -- and showed us a virtually identical e-mail to the one excerpted above -- but did not receive a response.

After we called Roll, she talked to Szabo, and later sent us an e-mail stating that political recruiting would be confined to the first part of the event, before pub trivia starts. "The Bay Citizen is nonpartisan and we would find it extremely inappropriate if there were any type of partisan recruiting happening at one of our events," Roll wrote to us. (In that case, it's probably not a great idea to invite an actively campaigning political organization to attend.)

We spoke to Szabo again, who began backtracking: "It's not something that we're doing in conjunction with the Bay Citizen. ... We're looking to attract people to come out, and political trivia is something I thought would be fun for the group."

We also put in a call and email to Jonathan Weber, the Bay Citizen's editor-in-chief, to talk about the situation. No word back yet, but we'll update this blog post with his response when we get it.

UPDATE, 4:58 P.M.: Weber got back to us with an email message echoing Roll's points. "I don't have much to add beyond what Rose said: their meeting and our pub quiz are two different events, and they certainly are not going to be conducting a volunteer drive at the pub quiz," Weber wrote. "Personally I wasn't previously aware that this particular group was even conducting volunteer drives for district races."
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