When A Spouse Comes With A Conflict Of Interest

In the Los Angeles Times today, James Rainey explores the ethical questions raised when political journalists have spouses who work for one of the presidential candidates.

It's a worthwhile topic: In the cozy confines of elite Washington, after all, such relationships are not uncommon. Times political reporter Ronald Brownstein is married to the chief spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain; the wife of Time magazine's Matthew Cooper is a chief ad strategist for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; Fortune and Fox News' Nina Easton's husband is a McCain media strategist.

Former White House aide Dan Senor, meanwhile, passed on a possible opportunity to join the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in part to keep his wife, NBC's Campbell Brown, from facing a conflict.

How are reporters dealing with the issue? Brownstein's bosses banned him from covering the presidential race in news pieces. He is now an opinion columnist. Easton is opting for "occasional disclaimers" on Fox. And Cooper expects "to acknowledge my wife works for Hillary … at least on Hillary-centric stories."

There are obvious and legitimate ethical concerns here, and I do think that, at minimum, a full disclosure is required in cases like this. But I also wonder about the slippery slope that requiring these types of disclosures could logically lead us down.

If reporters have to disclose their spousal connections to candidates, should they also have to disclose to readers who they voted for in a past election? Or which of the candidates they like most on a personal level? We need to think about exactly how much faith we have in reporters to put aside their personal, professional and ideological biases in order to cover a story fairly. If we don't feel they put those biases aside, after all, the whole notion of objective journalism goes out the window.