Commentary

Barry Bonds and NABJ shouldn't mix

Originally Published: August 6, 2010
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

I was 16 years old when I attended my first National Association of Black Journalists convention.

Seeing thousands of successful black journalists did an amazing job impacting my teenage psyche, and seeds of inspiration were planted that I continue to credit for helping me throughout my journalism career.

But throughout my 20-year history with the NABJ, I have rarely been as disappointed in the organization as I was last week when it announced during its annual convention it was accepting a $20,000 grant from Barry Bonds' charitable foundation.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Paul SakumaBarry Bonds was in court before and he'll be in court again next March. Should journalists who cover him accept a donation from him?

It has nothing to do with a personal dislike of Bonds. I accept his accomplishments on the field at face value and believe he should be in the Hall of Fame, regardless of his role in the steroids era. And unlike a lot of sports writers, I don't harbor a grudge against him because of his contentious relationship with the media, even though I have been critical of Bonds in the past.

I disapprove of NABJ accepting Bonds' money because it violates one of the basic tenets of journalism: You don't accept money from sources. It doesn't matter if those sources seem well-intentioned. It doesn't matter if the money will greatly help the organization.

There's no question that this volatile economic climate has had a dramatic impact on the media industry, especially on print media. The entire industry has been forced to be creative about finances, and cutting costs have endangered the product.

A lot of journalists have lost their jobs. A lot of newspapers and other media outlets are mired in serious financial trouble. Since NABJ's primary sources of funding are corporate donations and working journalists paying their dues and attending the annual convention, the organization certainly hasn't been immune to the financial crunch.

Times are tight.

Bonds' grant will be put to good use. It will fund the "Entrepreneurial Spirit Award," which is being named after Bay Area broadcaster Ray Taliaferro, a radio legend who has been broadcasting for nearly 40 years.

"I am sure that research on any donation that is given to any organization, some sort of issue can be found," said Gregory Lee Jr., senior assistant sports editor at the Boston Globe, NABJ's treasurer and the chairman of the organization's Sports Task Force. "NABJ feels that these funds will benefit the organization and help us to fulfill our mission of providing quality programs and services on behalf of black journalists worldwide."

To be fair, questions about conflicts and ethics could be raised about NABJ's other business relationships. At this year's annual convention in San Diego, the convention's opening reception -- which was free -- was held on a military ship, even though there are a number of journalists within the organization who regularly cover the military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Disney, ESPN's parent company, also held an elaborate, free reception at the convention with free food and alcohol. NASCAR sponsored a development panel and hosted a meet-and-greet, which many of the attendees speculated was a way of trying to improve its image with people of color.

[+] EnlargeShirley Sherrod
AP Photo/National Association of Black JournalistsAmong others who spoke at the recent NABJ convention were Roland Martin and Shirley Sherrod.

But the financial relationship with Bonds is much more direct, and the timing of the donation creates a different perception considering Bonds' substantial legal issues.

Bonds is facing federal perjury charges for lying to a grand jury about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. His trial is now set to begin next March 21. And while few NABJ members will be covering the trial, the donation leaves the door open for speculation that Bonds donated the money to curry favor with the largest minority journalism group in the nation.

I'd like to believe the motives behind Bonds' grant were pure, but how can anyone rule out the possibility that he is trying to use the donation to bolster his image before he goes on trial? As I mentioned before, Bonds has always had a difficult relationship with the media; this charitable gesture makes me wonder if he is attempting to soften journalists who look like him.

There are a lot of young, impressionable journalists who are NABJ members. Many of them look to the organization as a guiding force while they navigate their careers. How can the organization preach integrity, but accept money from someone who is a subject of the coverage its members undertake, especially when it's someone as controversial as Bonds?

Some of us will write about Bonds at some point, whether we cover his trial or not. The public is more distrustful of the media than ever right now, and part of the reason for that is because they aren't buying that journalists are impervious to influence. They question our agenda like they would a politician's.

I'm not the only member who raised some of these points, and we're all certainly aware that Bonds' grant will benefit NABJ members. But how much good can really be accomplished when it might also cripple our reputation?

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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