Dustin Racioppi spends his days as a statehouse reporter for The (Bergen) Record. Some nights and weekends, he moonlights as a bartender at Murphy’s Tavern, an old speakeasy and restaurant in Rumson that is owned by his wife.
Occasionally the two jobs intersect.
That’s when alarm bells go off about a potential conflict of interest.
As a reporter, part of Racioppi’s job is to cover Gov. Phil Murphy (no relation to the namesake of the Racioppi family-run tavern) and the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Racioppi frequently peppers Murphy with questions about the reopening of indoor restaurant dining, but has not publicly disclosed that the governor’s decision to close eating establishments – including his own – has had a considerable effect on his family’s personal income.
“What plans are being considered, if any, to help the business community that is going to suffer from whatever effects this coronavirus will have, whether it’s closings or a curfew?” Racioppi asked at a coronavirus briefing on March 15, one day before Murphy’s executive order closed all in-person dining in New Jersey.
In June, Racioppi pressed Murphy on his limits to indoor and outdoor gatherings.
“What exactly is an indoor gathering? Does that mean a restaurant, or a funeral home can open indoors at 50 people or 25% capacity?” the reporter asked.
At a Murphy briefing this week, Racioppi narrowed his question to specifically ask about Monmouth County, citing no new COVID-19 cases and one death.
“Can you say what it will take for you to decide to allow indoor dining?” Racioppi asked.
None of Racioppi’s questions were out of line or off topic. From any other reporter, it would clearly have gone unnoticed.
But Racioppi can’t shake the fact that revenues from Murphy’s Tavern help support his family, especially during a period when he lost one week’s salary a month while Gannett was furloughing reporters.
“The main issue is transparency,” said Kathleen Culver, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It would be a very simple move to disclose that to readers. That just builds trust with your readers.”
Culver suggested that Racioppi tell his readers that he has a financial interest in a bar closed as a result of Murphy’s executive order as a way to negate the appearance of a conflict.
“In disclosing a conflict, responsibility for judging credibility goes to the reader,” Culver explained.
The possible conflict may go further than Racioppi’s own reporting.
The Record, the Asbury Park Press, where Racioppi was previously employed, and other Gannett newspapers have plugged Murphy’s Tavern at least a dozen times over the past five years – valuable free publicity for the Racioppi family’s small business.
It’s been included in Gannett’s “Ultimate Guide to New Jersey Speakeasies” and named both one of “the 6 best bars for winter at the Shore” and one of “5 fascinating bars worth a shot this summer.”
Gannett has saluted Murphy’s Tavern as one of “15 amazing Halloween parties to die for.”
While Racioppi’s bar was winning rave reviews from Gannett, none of the stories disclosed that one of their reporters had a financial interest in the establishment they were promoting.
Alex Biese, an Asbury Park Press features reporter who has written several stories about Murphy’s Tavern, declined to discuss his coverage of the Racioppi eatery.
He directed questions to his editor, Bill Canacci. Canacci did not immediately respond to a July 21 email seeking comment.
As a reporter for the Red Bank Green in 2011, Racioppi plugged Murphy’s Tavern in a story about a local writer, but never disclosed that his wife owned the bar or that he worked there.
Murphy cancels indoor dining reopening
On June 30, Murphy announced that he was reversing his previous decision to permit the limited reopening of indoor dining after he watched crowded bars over the weekend ignore social distancing requirements.
Racioppi questioned Murphy that day about his decree.
“Given your reasoning that indoor dining increases the risk of transmission, is it even feasible for that to happen before there’s a vaccine?” Racioppi asked. ”Why weren’t you naming and shaming any of the establishments that, for a couple weeks, were clearly violating your orders, at least in some sort of attempt to get people into compliance before making your decision that you did yesterday on indoor dining?”
Shortly after the story broke that the Murphy would not allowing indoor dining to resume, the eatery posted a message on social media saying that “due to the governor’s suspension of indoor dining, we will not be able to open inside this Thursday.”
“Very disappointed,’ Murphy’s Tavern posted on Facebook.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a 9:30 AM email seeking comment.
A bigger problem for Racioppi could be how closely his employer follows its own published Code of Conduct.
“We will remain free of outside interests, investments or business relationships that may compromise the credibility of our news report. We will avoid potential conflicts of interest and eliminate inappropriate influence on content,” the code says.
Racioppi declined to comment on potential conflicts, except to note that indoor dining was “an issue lots of people are asking about.”
He referred further questions to his editor, Dan Sforza, and did not immediately respond to an email sent at 8:13 PM on Thursday.
Sforza did not immediately respond to an email at 10:12 PM on Thursday that asked about The Record’s adherence to its own ethics policies.
The (Bergen) Record has an additional ethics code that “acknowledges that there is no way to anticipate all situations that might raise ethical questions for staff members.”
“At the same time, The Record believes its staff members should perform their jobs within the prescribed ethical guidelines outlined in this code,” their ethics code explains. “The newspaper also believes that to a large degree staffers must be the judges of their own standards. They must avoid actual or perceived conflicts of interest that might lead to embarrassment for themselves or for the newspaper.”
Specifically, The Record addresses issues where “a loved one’s employment or activities at times may create a potential or real conflict of interest for the staffer.”
“For example, if a staffer’s wife is the mayor of Shadyvale Township, the staffer should not be making decisions about the paper’s coverage of Shadyvale politics,” The Record’s ethics policy further states.