Berkley and the Risky Business of Ethical Nuance

The New York Times recently reported that Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is challenging Sen. Dean Heller for his Senate seat, has been a dedicated advocate of health care, especially care of the kidneys. That might not have seemed like front-page news, but her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a nephrologist. Berkley’s efforts have brought some financial benefits to those in the kidney biz, and she has received contributions from them.

Clearly, while she never has been coy about her husband’s profession, Berkley could have done a better job of disclosing these additional connections—she later said so herself. There’s also room for debate about whether and how much she and/or her family actually benefited from these efforts—to put it another way, the whole thing seems to look worse than it actually is. And she offered a great line in her defense: “I won’t stop fighting to give Nevadans access to affordable health care just because my husband is a doctor, just like I won’t stop standing up for veterans because my father served in World War II.”

All of which exemplifies classic dilemmas for anyone in the public eye: where does a conflict of interest begin and end? Where is the dividing line between serving the public and helping a friend? And if you haven’t crossed that line but it appears that you have, what is the political fallout?

Sen. Harry Reid could tell you about that. In 2003, The Los Angeles Times reported that his family members included a lobbyist and attorneys for gaming and mining interests. The story’s thrust was that something insidious was going on, mainly because his sons worked for Lionel Sawyer & Collins, the top law firm for those industries.

I wrote to a Times editor to point out that Reid would represent gaming and mining whether or not his family was tied to the industry because they were the key cogs in Nevada’s economy. Indeed, Nevada’s other U.S. senator, John Ensign, had worked in gaming and still had family in it, and whether or not they benefited from his actions, he would have been serving those powers anyway. The Times’ argument was like saying if a senator from California had a relative in the movies, she would defend the film industry for that reason, and not because it was a leading California industry.

The editor, a deservedly well-respected journalist named Dean Baquet, claimed that wasn’t the story’s implication and professed not to see the point. He later left the Los Angeles Times over the publisher’s continuing cuts. He took a new job he held until earlier this month: Washington bureau chief for The New York Times, making him the supervising editor for the story on Berkley. (He is now co-managing editor at the Times.)

Conspiracy? Anti-Nevada sentiment? Hardly. But Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post once said of his paper’s role in revealing Richard Nixon’s Watergate crimes, “It would have been so much easier if he’d been a Democrat,” thereby avoiding the right-wing canard about the liberal media. Did The New York Times emphasize the Berkley story more because she’s a Democrat? Unlikely, but with the story’s appearance, right-wingers here suddenly rediscovered the Times’ greatness as a newspaper after years of reflexively criticizing it.

Whether all of this hurts Berkley is debatable—those who already have made up their minds are unlikely to change, and the undecided will consider numerous other factors. But it raises an important question: When public and personal interest unavoidably intersect, do we really want our officials to abstain from fighting for the former?

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