Projo to Use Democratic Consultant for Polling

Monday, November 18, 2013


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The Providence Journal, on the heels of laying off and taking buyouts from more than 50 reporters, editors and photographers in less than a year, has announced that it will be using a Rhode Island Democratic consultant to conduct polling during the 2014 election cylce as part of a partnership with WPRI-12.

Providence Journal and WPRI-12 have confirmed they will use Democratic consultant Joe Fleming in the coming year.  

Earlier this year, GoLocalProv had revealed that Fleming had earned tens of thousands working for Speaker of the House Gordon Fox's related political committees.

Fleming Active this Month for Top Democrats

Just this month, Fleming was a paid consultant to Democrat Lisa Baldelli Hunt in her race for Mayor of Woonsocket. Fleming was paid thousands by the State Representative.

When GoLocalProv first unveiled the Fleming-Fox links, a number of leading journalism experts from across the country raised concerns about WPRI-12's use of Fleming. M. Charles Bakst, the venerable retired reporter of the Providence Journal told GoLocalProv, “This is a two-part answer,” Bakst said. “As a general rule of thumb, I would think a media outlet would not want a pollster working for them who is also working for a political party. The second part is that I know Joe and have never had any reason to question his integrity.”

RI GOP Call Foul

With Fleming working for the Democratic party and democratic candidates, leaders in the GOP are raising concerns about fairness, disclosure and transparency.

"I do believe that media outlets should choose pollsters without any clients effected by a given poll. These polling results are especially critical, especially in the early stages of a campaign to provide a basis for early fundraising. To me, it diminishes the credibility of the poll knowing the pollster is employed by a candidate or organization included in the poll results," said John Loughlin, former GOP candidate for Congress and radio talk show host on WPRO.

GOP Party Spokesperson, Mike Napolitano said, "If Fleming is in fact polling for the Democratic party as a client, or speaker Fox as a client, he cannot claim he does not appear as a neutral party in any general poll. There's a conflict of interest if that's the case, which needs to indicated."

Fleming's list of Democratic clients is extensive and covers that past decade. "If he's working for the party, it definitely raises an eyebrow.  Even if it looks improper, people lose faith. If I were a media outlet, I'd demand to know that he's not working on behalf of the (Democratic) party," said Napolitano.

"The Providence Journal has been delivering high quality, in-depth coverage of statewide political campaigns and elections since the 1800s," said Karen Bordeleau, senior vice president and executive editor of The Journal in a press release. "Our Campaign 2014 poll partnership with Eyewitness News will enhance that coverage and provide deeper, smarter journalism for Journal subscribers and WPRI's viewers."  


The Dean of the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism echoed the criticism by outcast Democrats about the dual roles of Joe Fleming. For the past two election cycles, Fleming has served as political consultant for speaker of the House Gordon Fox and Television analyst and Pollster for WPRI-12.

The pollster goes before the public as a neutral party.

"The principle at stake is that the person as a pollster goes before the public representing as a neutral party presenting information without bias or political alignments,” said Edward Wasserman, Dean of the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "If the pollster is aligned with a particular party or organization, that’s misleading and it’s deceptive. There is an issue of transparency, an assumption of neutrality.”

Wasserman, whose expertise includes being an authority on the ethics, evolution and ownership of the news media, has written multiple articles on conflict of interest in media and media relations.

“If there’s no hiding the fact that they are aligned with a particular party, work for the party and announce that information, then there is less of a conflict. If the analyst’s representation dovetail’s with the interests of a certain party, that is problematic - ethically problematic. “

Wasserman also spoke to the issue of the changing media and the representation of analysts and experts who have a targeted agenda.

“There is a new species, a strange hybrid of news consultants. They aren’t a source and they aren’t journalists,” Wasserman said. “You see it across media outlets.”

There was no impropriety.
Fleming, responding to allegations of impropriety and "illegal coordination" by Democrats fallen from favor with House leadership and no longer serving as representatives at the State House, told in an interview that there was no impropriety. Fleming, a political consultant and pollster, also serves as a political analyst for WPRI-12 in Providence.

“It’s all common knowledge,” he said. "I am retained by the Speaker and under contract with the Speaker’s office. This is no secret.”

“I don’t want to comment on how I choose who I work for or how I get paid. Payments from the Leadership and PACS are public knowledge. It’s no secret that I will work with candidates who support the leadership.

Statewide, I do not work for anyone higher than the office of mayor. As a consultant for WPRI I do not comment on any campaigns that I work on,” Fleming said. 

As a contracted consultant for Speaker of the House Gordon Fox, Fleming was also retained to work on several area Democratic house campaigns. He was paid directly from the House leadership and House controlled political action committees (PACs).

“I was also paid by the Senate, did work for the Senate,” he said.

In 2012, Fleming’s work as a political analyst had him polling, providing political analysis and commentary on key races and ballot issues, while also under contract with the Speaker of the House. Polling issues covered by WPRI and Fleming during the election included casino gambling, same-sex marriage, senior programs, and Governor Chafee’s handling of 38 studios.

Consider the question of professional ethics.

“I think first you have to consider the question of professional ethics,” said Stephen B. Shepard, Founding Dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. “If you have more than one client, generally you are contracted through non-disclosure and cannot divulge information to the other client. As a pollster you are asking specific questions of the targeted sampling. You are posing questions in the most favorable light for your client. There are three questions I would ask,” Shepard said.

1. Is there a conflict of interest?
2. Is the conflict manageable?
3. When does the conflict become insurmountable?
“You can make the argument that pollsters work for whoever hires them,” said Shepard. “The question is whether the pollster is acting as an independent analyst.”

Locally, M. Charles Bakst, former political columnist for the Providence Journal, when asked if a consultant, in this case, Mr. Fleming, should be working as a pollster for a major media outlet while under contract with the Speaker offered this comment.

“This is a two-part answer,” Bakst said. “As a general rule of thumb, I would think a media outlet would not want a pollster working for them who is also working for a political party. The second part is that I know Joe and have never had any reason to question his integrity.”


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(Photo: Alan Levine, Flickr)

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