By Josh Levy
The worst type of political scandal doesn’t involve the passing of money but the manipulation of public information. The reason for this is plain. Money cannot buy everything in the political world. Many very wealthy or well-connected candidates have failed. Many well-funded legislative efforts have come to nothing. But control over the sources of public information – above all, the schools and the press – brings control over public opinion, which makes any political achievement possible. As Lincoln said, “[P]ublic sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” The anti-gun left seems to have absorbed this lesson in New Jersey . . .
An anti-Second Amendment activist with connections to two of the most prominent anti-gun groups in the state – and, through those groups, to state senate majority leader, Loretta Weinberg – has been writing stories for two years for the second-largest New Jersey newspaper about the gun rights debate. His coverage, consistently sympathetic to the anti-2A position, has included stories about the activities of the two anti-gun groups to which he has been personally connected without disclosing his apparent conflict of interest.
It seems that the fervent campaign against the right to keep and bear arms in New Jersey, led by Sen. Weinberg, might have received a big helping hand from a reporter at a widely-distributed newspaper that somehow failed to inform their readers that he was active, whether formerly or currently, on the side of the groups and politicians he covered.
Everyone knows that New Jersey is one of the most hostile states to gun owners. Less known is that the anti-gun owner campaign is largely driven by activists in one northern region: Bergen County. At once the most populous and most leftist area of the state, Bergen County’s politics are closer to those of neighboring Manhattan than the more moderate western or southern counties of New Jersey. (Arguably, Bergen County is the main reason that statewide elections usually swing Democratic.) The county is home to the state senate majority leader, Loretta Weinberg, who has earned a national reputation in recent years for her blind and vitriolic prejudice against gun owners. Weinberg typically wins re-election by a margin of 40-50%.
The county is also home to the Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, founded by the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County. The Society is so closely affiliated with the Coalition that the Society boasts of founding the Coalition (see, e.g., the bottom of this page at the Society’s website) and filling the Coalition’s officer positions (see, e.g., the bottom of this page at the Society’s website). The Ethical Culture Society still offers support to the Coalition’s activities (just run a search for the two names together and skim the results). The Coalition, the Society, and Sen. Loretta Weinberg are all located in the town of Teaneck.
Following the December 14, 2012 Newtown school shooting, members of both groups spent several months thereafter urging local town councils to approve a resolution demanding a slew of severe restrictions against gun owners, including a five-round magazine limit that would have effectively banned most handguns. All or most of the councils quickly obliged.
Since then, in their ongoing anti-gun owner campaigns, the Coalition and Society, whether separately or jointly (it can be hard to tell which), have continued to hold rallies, protests, vigils, and discussions, at which Sen. Weinberg herself has sometimes spoken. All three – Weinberg, the Coalition, and the Society – have made the exploitation of the Newtown tragedy chief among their talking points. For example, Sen. Weinberg arranged for a selected number of Newtown parents to testify in the New Jersey statehouse. And the Coalition holds an annual Newtown memorial, complete with guitar-playing and candle-lighting, that’s attended, of course, by Sen. Weinberg.
All this is as one might expect. As dangerous these efforts might be to the ability of ordinary Americans to avail themselves of the right to armed self defense, this sort of campaign resembles other irrational, emotion-driven efforts against gun owners held regularly from Connecticut to California.
Apparent Conflict of Interest: BC Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence
What might be unexpected, however, is how Sen. Weinberg and these organizations have benefited from free, fawning coverage by a reporter who was an organizer of the Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence (and has spoken publicly on its behalf), and an active member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County. Mr. Jim Norman, formerly of the New York Times, has written numerous stories for the Bergen Record, the second-largest circulating newspaper in New Jersey, about political events sponsored by the Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence or the Ethical Culture Society. He has done so without yet disclosing, it seems, his apparent conflict of interest in the online articles, and with the possible approval of his assignment editor, Mrs. Carla Baranauckas.
Mr. Norman took an energetic role in December 2012 and early 2013 in agitating publicly against the right to armed self-defense. As the Bergen Record itself reported on January 30, 2013, Mr. Norman served as a representative of the Coalition before the Teaneck town council. The article stated: “Jim Norman, a Teaneck resident who facilitated a discussion on gun violence at the Ethical Culture Society in Teaneck, Jan. 17,  presented the resolution to the council at its Jan. 22 meeting. ’I’m here on behalf of the Teaneck contingent of a broad and growing Bergen County Coalition against Gun Violence,’ Norman told the council.” (“Teaneck Council Considers Measure Against Gun Violence“).
Mr. Norman had previously appeared at a protest reported on by the Teaneck Patch on Dec. 17, 2012, which was “organized quickly through the internet and by the Ethical Culture Society.” The article quotes Mr. Norman as saying: “This is the first in this area of what we hope will be non-stop action until America comes to its senses.” (“Newtown Massacre Prompts Gun Control Rally in Teaneck“).
At the same time that he was taking political action against gun owners, Mr. Norman was writing stories for the Record on the gun rights debate as a supposedly impartial reporter, without apparently disclosing his active involvement in the debate. On Jan. 22, 2013, just a week before Mr. Norman appeared before the Teaneck Council as a representative of the anti-gun-owner Coalition, the Record published an article he wrote about a magazine ban proposed by the late US senator, Frank Lautenberg: (“Lautenberg Unveils Bill to Ban High-Capacity Ammunition Magazines“). No disclosure of any conflict of interest is currently noted in the article online.
Only a few weeks later, the Bergen Record reported that Mr. Jim Norman again appeared before the Teaneck council as a Coalition representative. The Feb. 20, 2013 article stated: “Resident Jim Norman, a member of the Bergen County Coalition Against Gun Violence,” argued again in favor of the resolution he had proposed on behalf of the Coalition at the earlier meeting: (“Teaneck Council Approves Measure Against Gun Violence“).
Worse, Mr. Norman has written a number of articles about events sponsored by the Coalition or other persons with the same viewpoint. As a notable example, the Bergen Record allowed Mr. Norman to write a December 14, 2014 article on a candlelight vigil “organized by the Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence”: (“Memorial in Teaneck Remembers Newtown Shooting Victims“). The article quotes the leaders of the Coalition and the Ethical Culture Society, as well as Sen. Weinberg, and offers no alternative opinions. Needless to say, the online article does not currently note Mr. Norman’s (past? present?) affiliation with these organizations.
It should not surprise anyone that, generally speaking, the articles written by Mr. Norman on these organizations or other persons with similar views are highly favorable to the cause of gun right restrictions. Sometimes, such as in the two articles on Lautenberg and the candlelight vigil, contrary views are not offered at all. Other times, a contrary view is offered, but usually in passing and late in the article.
Apparent Conflict of Interest: Ethical Culture Society
But Mr. Norman’s reporting on his personal political causes has not been limited to the issue of the right to bear arms. He has also reported on other political issues addressed by the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, of which he appears to have been a member as recently as August 10, 2014. On that date, according to the events section of the Society’s website (see the Aug. 10, 2014 event listing at this page at the Society’s website), Mr. Norman served as moderator for a political discussion at the Society that criticized “right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch.”
Yet on Nov. 13, 2014, a piece by Mr. Norman was published about a panel presentation at the Society featuring, among others, the executive director of the New Jersey ACLU. (“Ethics Forum in Teaneck Takes Up Ebola Quarantines“). Earlier that same week, another of Mr. Norman’s articles appeared at the Bergen Record about a Teaneck protest sponsored in part by the Ethical Culture Society: (“Protestors in Teaneck Call for Safer Rail Cars to Transport Oil“). Neither article currently mentions Mr. Norman’s activity with the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.
In sum, over a period of at least two years, Mr. Norman seems to have written a number of articles about two political organizations in which he himself apparently served as an active member, without disclosing his possible conflict of interest. In the guise of an impartial reporter, he appears to have used his position in the media to offer what was effectively free advertising for an anti-gun campaign that received the enthusiastic participation of himself, Sen. Weinberg, and members of the Coalition and Society.
Bergen Record Editor Defends Norman
And at least one editor at the Record appears to approve of what he did (insofar as she was aware of it).
I emailed Mr. Norman directly on Dec. 29, 2014 to ask him why he did not inform readers of his apparent conflict of interest. I have not heard back from him, but his assignment editor, Mrs. Carla Baranauckas, replied by email the next day. (My email to Mr. Norman and Mrs. Baranauckas’s reply are reproduced in full below.)
Mrs. Baranauckas did not seem to be in possession of all the facts, because she stated at the outset: “When Jim came to work at The Record he disassociated himself from any role in the Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.” As described above, Mr. Norman was writing articles for the Record even while representing the Coalition before the Teaneck town council.
The assignment editor also maintained that Mr. Norman is scrupulously fair: “When asked to cover an event, like the Newtown memorial, he approaches it in a responsible, professional and impartial manner. That is exactly what he did in this case and that is what he does with all his assignments, no matter what the topic is.”
Again, as described above, this statement can be credible only if Mrs. Baranauckas believes that the “responsible, professional and impartial” means deeply involved in causes on which he reports.
She continued: “As for his membership in the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, a religious organization, he is entitled to pursue his spiritual beliefs the same way any other members or [sic] our staff are entitled to pursue theirs. If a reporter is Catholic, for example, that does not disqualify him or her from covering stories related to the Catholic Church.”
Now, the Ethical Culture Society is a self-described “non-theistic” humanist organization, although they have somehow managed to obtain religious status from the government. As the Society’s website states: “The humanism of Ethical Culture is non-theistic. While it does not technically deny the existence of a Supreme Being, Ethical Culture does not concern itself with theological issues.” Yet it “is recognized by the government as a religious organization.” Got it.
But even if the Society were actually religious, one of its primary activities, if not the principal purpose, is blatantly political, as is obvious from its website and the news articles about it. And with regard to the events covered by Mr. Norman, the Society was acting politically, with the declared intent of changing government policies.
In conclusion, Mrs. Baranauckas stated: “I am grateful that you are a careful and loyal reader of The Record.”
I do appreciate the compliment. But I wish the assignment editor herself were a “careful reader” of her own newspaper, and had thought to run a few simple internet searches before responding to a complaint regarding what seems to be a significant conflict of interest.
After I responded, copying Mr. Norman and the general newsroom address, I received the next day the following reply from the editor of the newspaper, Mr. Martin Gottlieb: “Thanks for your letter. We will review the particulars next week, when our full staff returns, and get back to you.” This curt, non-committal email did not indicate that the Bergen Record would take this matter seriously.
Will Anyone Take This Seriously?
The Bergen Record needs to answer a series of pertinent questions: How many articles about his own favored political groups — groups in which is or has been a member — has Mr. Norman penned for the Record without disclosing his apparent conflict of interest? Was the Record aware of these conflicts? If so, why did the Record’s editors allow him to cover these groups’ events? Does the Record have any policies and procedures or a code of ethics designed to prevent such a thing from happening again? Which other reporters at the Record may have similar conflicts of interest that have not been disclosed properly to readers? What steps will the Record take to investigate Mr. Norman and other reporters and issue a report with their findings?
Furthermore, Mr. Ed Gross, the chairman of the Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, and Mr. Joseph Chuman, the leader of the closely affiliated Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, both owe an explanation to the citizens of New Jersey. It is hard to believe that they didn’t know of the articles Mr. Norman wrote about their organizations’ activities. And it is simply impossible that Mr. Gross and Mr. Chuman were not aware of Mr. Norman’s close connections to their own organizations. Do they support such apparently unethical tactics, or will they condemn them? And did they do anything themselves to encourage or obtain such coverage from Mr. Norman?
Above all, Sen. Weinberg owes an explanation to the citizens of New Jersey. What has been the nature of her seemingly close affiliation with the Coalition, the Society, and Mr. Jim Norman? Given her own appearances with the groups, it is highly probable she knew about Mr. Norman’s connections to both organizations. Did she ever alert an editor at the Bergen Record to Mr. Norman’s apparent conflict of interest? Or was she simply pleased to accept the benefit of Mr. Norman’s reporting, regardless of his activities on behalf of the groups who support her?
How Many Others Are There?
Those on the side of Sen. Weinberg, Mr. Norman, his editor, the Bergen Record, the Coalition, and the Society, will likely argue that this is just an isolated case (assuming they even acknowledge that anything inappropriate has occurred). But one has to wonder: how many other left-wing political activists are disguising themselves as mainstream media reporters and, with or without the approval of their like-minded editors, passing off stories about their very own political organizations as objective news reporting?
Perhaps Bergen County and the state of New Jersey would not be quite so hostile to gun owners if its major newspaper did not allow anti-gun activist supporters of Sen. Weinberg to cover her and decide what the public needed to know.
Josh Levy is a New Jersey resident, a father and husband, a member of several organizations that protect the right to self-defense, an officer in a local gun club, and a member of the Gun for Hire range at Woodland Park. The commentary expressed here is his alone. He is not a reporter.
Following are my initial email to Mr. Jim Norman and the reply by Mrs. Carla Baranauckas.
Dec. 29, 2014, to Mr. Jim Norman:
I see that an article you wrote about the recent Newtown memorial event in Teaneck was published online on Dec. 14, 2014: http://www.northjersey.com/news/memorial-in-teaneck-remembers-newtown-school-shooting-victims-1.1153398?fb_action_ids=624811994307864&fb_action_types=og.comments.
As you wrote in the beginning of the article, the event was “organized by the Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence,” which is a group organized by and largely identical with the Bergen County Ethical Culture Society.
But are you not the same Jim Norman who is a member of this very Bergen County Ethical Culture Society and who in fact helped organize the Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Vioence, as shown by this Jan. 13, 2013 announcement on Teaneck Patch: http://patch.com/new-jersey/teaneck/ev–organize-against-gun-violence?
If so, it seems that you have a major conflict of interest in reporting on an event by a group that you helped organize. Yet no announcement of your conflict of interest appears in the article – and, as written, the article is thoroughly sympathetic to the event and cites no contrary opinion whatsoever.
Would you please either confirm or deny your close connection to the groups above? If what I have written is true, would you please work with your editors to issue a prominent statement online explaining that the article was written by a member of and advocate for the group?
Thank you very much,
Dec. 30, 2014, from Mrs. Carla Baranauckas:
Dear Mr. Levy:
Jim Norman, one of the reporters I supervise at The Record, brought to my attention the email in which you raised questions about his assignment to cover a memorial event for the shootings in Newtown, Conn.
As the person who assigned Jim to cover the event, I disagree with your conclusion that he had a conflict of interest. When Jim came to work at The Record he disassociated himself from any role in the Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. He does not attend its meetings and he does not confer with its leaders. When asked to cover an event, like the Newtown memorial, he approaches it in a responsible, professional and impartial manner. That is exactly what he did in this case and that is what he does with all his assignments, no matter what the topic is.
As for his membership in the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, a religious organization, he is entitled to pursue his spiritual beliefs the same way any other members or our staff are entitled to pursue theirs. If a reporter is Catholic, for example, that does not disqualify him or her from covering stories related to the Catholic Church. The same applies to Jews, Muslims, Hindus and practitioners of other faiths.
My understanding is that while some people who belong to the Ethical Culture Society also participate in the Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, the organization draws interest and members from a broad swath of individuals and people of many faiths.
I have worked with Jim Norman for many years, including years before we were hired at The Record. I have found him to be unfailingly professional and forthcoming in any situation where there may be an ethical question. I think he did a fair and impartial article on the Newtown memorial.
I am grateful that you are a careful and loyal reader of The Record. And even though we disagree on this matter, I appreciate the feedback that you provided.