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Professor takes heat for nod to Clinton

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / November 19, 2007

It was an unorthodox political endorsement, to be sure. And in throwing her support behind presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with an unprompted, heartfelt speech at a New Hampshire rally last month, Carole Simpson, the longtime ABC news anchor-turned-Emerson College journalism instructor, flung herself into the partisan fires.

While Clinton was quite taken by the unexpected backing, quickly issuing a press release touting it, others have taken offense. Over the past month, news of Simpson's endorsement has barreled across the blogosphere, seized on by conservatives as proof of liberal media bias. And Emerson students and faculty continue to debate the ethics of a journalism instructor and well-known former reporter making a public show of support for a political candidate.

Simpson, 65, said she immediately regretted her actions and offered her resignation the next day, which university officials refused to accept. Now Simpson is considering an offer from the Clinton campaign to stump for the candidate, namely before black audiences in the South. She and other university officials have agreed she will not teach political journalism courses if she campaigns for Clinton.

"I know I made a mistake. It was definitely the wrong venue for my first foray into free speech," Simpson said. "But I'd really like to see her win. After being a reporter for so many years, where you wish you could do more than you can, it would be nice to make a difference."

Simpson described Clinton, whom she covered extensively during President Bill Clinton's administration, as the smartest woman she had ever met.

Simpson took her 14-student journalism class, "Road to the White House," to the rally to show students how to cover a political event, and possibly introduce them to the Democratic front-runner.

Instead, Simpson, who is best known as the first woman to moderate a presidential debate, found herself professing her preference for Clinton as the first female president.

As Clinton was fielding questions from the audience, Simpson tried several times to get her attention, shouting "Senator Clinton!" across the crowded room.

When she finally caught Clinton's eye, she offered an off-the-cuff endorsement that took both parties aback.

"I want to tell you tonight, because I happen to be here with my students, that I endorse you for president of the United States," she said. "It's very freeing now that I'm not a journalist and I can speak my mind, and I wanted you to know I think you are the woman, and I think this is the time."

Simpson said she immediately recognized her actions were unwise, and believes she has lost a measure of respect among her colleagues as a result.

"It used to be more collegial," she said. "I get the sense the relationship has changed."

Simpson arrived at Emerson last year after leaving ABC, where she anchored ABC World News Tonight Sunday from 1988 to 2003.

Jerry Lanson, an Emerson journalism professor who co-teaches the course with Simpson, said he immediately told Simpson her actions were inappropriate.

"As faculty members if we're teaching journalists, we need to model the behavior we're teaching in the classroom," he said.

Janet Kolodzy, acting chairwoman of Emerson's Department of Journalism, said she was startled by the endorsement, but felt it was within ethical bounds.

"The presence of her students is what raised concerns," she said. "But we are a college that advocates free expression." Kolodzy said the event has sparked discussion on campus on the "gray area between the rights of a private citizen and a journalist's responsibility."

Other media observers saw the issue in starker terms. Brent Baker, vice president of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group, said Simpson's endorsement shows the liberal dominance of the mainstream media.

"People had always assumed she was a liberal when she was at ABC, but this confirms it," he said.

But Peter Hart, activism director for Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a left-leaning media watchdog group, said Simpson's endorsement was a "nonstory" propagated by political conservatives to advance the myth of liberal media bias.

"This is a feeble attempt to document a nonexistent phenomenon," he said.

Robert Zelnick, a Boston University journalism professor who also worked at ABC News, said professors are not inhibited from voicing their political opinions, and that Simpson's endorsement of Clinton was fairly predictable.

"Those familiar with her work probably had very little doubt she stood on the liberal side of the field," he said.

Simpson said her endorsement not only was unplanned, it was caused by a lack of planning.

"I'm trying to show them persistence as a reporter, so I kept trying to get her attention," she recalled with a chuckle. "When I did, I realized I didn't have anything to say. I felt like a deer in headlights."

Simpson said she regrets that the endorsement continues to be a flashpoint, and said her political opinions have never influenced her reporting or teaching.

"I anchored for 15 years, and I defy anyone to have determined my political feelings from that," she said. "In no way would I ever let my own political feelings affect my teaching or my grades."

Emerson students said they supported Simpson.

"I personally feel the whole situation has been overblown," said James O'Leary, a junior broadcast journalism major.

"She's no longer a journalist, she's a professor of journalism," agreed Lauren Vassallo. "It's a very fine line, but I don't think she crossed it."

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