Media Ethics: “So Last Century”

Pity poor Ben Stein, fired by The New York Times for an egregious conflict of interest. Although he was trusted by Times readers to offer unbiased economic commentary, Stein could also be found in advertisements hawking a company that soaks suckers for $30 a month for access to a “free credit score” when in fact these are available to everyone, by law, and actually free. According to the Times, this clearly violated its ethics policy, which states “it is an inherent conflict for a journalist to perform public relations work, paid or unpaid.”

Stein’s complaint appears to be that he has violated this policy so many times in so many ways that he thinks it mean of the paper—or perhaps the unnamed conspirators who are out to get him because he dared to question the wisdom of Barack Obama—to finally enforce its declared policy. He opines on the website of The American Spectator that he did “not see the conflict of interest.” But nevermind, he bucks himself up: “The gig was getting to be so small that it really had a minor effect on my economic life. Still, I shall miss waking up on Sunday to see my column unless a neighbor here in Beverly Hills has stolen my paper.”

Well, you have to sympathize with the poor fellow with the crime-ridden Beverly Hills address on at least one point: Media conflicts—always exclusively beneficial to the wealthy and powerful—are becoming so numerous and simultaneously egregious that it’s hardly a wonder that Stein expected to continue to get away with his forever.

Take Richard Wolffe, for example, who is not a journalist, but he does get to play one on television. Wolffe, an ex-Newsweek reporter, now works as a corporate PR flack, according to his bio page at Public Strategies Inc., providing “high-level counsel and insight to our clients on how to manage their reputations in a complex public environment.” He even mentions his television gig on his promotional materials for corporate clients: “Wolffe is an NBC political analyst. He provides political commentary on several MSNBC programs, ‘Meet The Press,’ and ‘TODAY.’” Yet the above is, apparently, not something MSNBC thought to be worth mentioning to its viewers, even on the days when Wolffe served as guest-host for Keith Olbermann’s show.

MSNBC did react to the negative publicity—perhaps aided by their own PR flacks—as media corporations are wont to do, as if the perception and not the reality were the problem. (It’s not as if they couldn’t have known… ) But like Ben Stein, however, Wolffe doesn’t see what the big deal is. “The idea that journalists are somehow not engaged in corporate activities is not really in touch with what’s going on. Every conversation with journalists is about business models and advertisers,” he explains. "You tell me where the line is between business and journalism.”

Again, sadly, the fellow may have a point. Look at the deal, now confirmed by multiple sources, undertaken last April between Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to censor both Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly. Immelt complained that his parents watched O’Reilly and it upset his mom when O’Reilly put up Immelt’s picture and blamed him for helping to kill American servicemen and women in Iraq. Ailes say it was really mean of Olbermann to keep bringing up the fact that O’Reilly was forced to settle a sexual harassment suit.

Both corporations decided that the pattern of insults “’wasn’t good for either parent,’ said an NBC employee with direct knowledge of the situation.” (Olbermann denied he was part of any deal, but critics, most energetically Salon’s Glenn Greenwald and here note that his criticism of O’Reilly stopped dead—as did almost all his mentions of Fox—up until the deal was revealed, at which time it started up again.

The nuttiness of the O’Reilly/Olberman antics notwithstanding—O’Reilly admitted that he had “been told but cannot confirm that the General Electric corporation is under suspicion in the case” for the egregious accusations he was making—these are significant conflicts of interest. Who can imagine that the parent corporations of Fox and NBC, or the clients of Wolffe’s PR firm, do not have important interests in the issues that these shows debate?

Since we are talking about the hosts of all three shows, their power and influence extends to the issues they choose not to discuss as well as what they happen to say. Can you imagine MSNBC, for instance, doing a special segment on the environmental dangers posed by nuclear power or nuclear weapons? Can you think of Fox spending quality time on the recent Rupert Murdoch spy scandal in England? Would you really expect Wolffe to sign off on a segment documenting the abuses of a client he is being paid to advise? Would you hire a PR flack who did?

Of course, those of us who continue to care about the deleterious effects of these conflicts—whether they be to democracy, to journalism, or simply to the interest of those who are not represented at the (very expensive) table where the favors are doled out—are beginning to feel like we are screaming ourselves hoarse to an industry that, as Wolffe implied above, is not terribly concerned with its ethics anymore.

This tendency can be seen perhaps in its most pristine form in the case of Washington Post and CNN media critic Howard Kurtz. As the public media ethics cop for both of these institutions, Kurtz is undoubtedly the most important voice in the industry. And yet not only does he represent one of its most outrageous conflicts of interest, he simply laughs off any attempt to hold him accountable.

I’ve written about these conflicts plenty in the past. Jamison Foser, who used to be a colleague of mine when my blog was sponsored by Media Matters, recently picked up on my correspondence with Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander on the topic. Foser notes that Alexander asked Kurtz about his failure to alert Post readers to his regular paycheck from CNN when defending the network’s lack of weekend coverage of the Iranian election story. Kurtz told him, “That was an oversight and won’t be repeated.” But as Foser notes, “it has been repeatedly repeated.” Kurtz barely mentioned the scandal of Lou Dobbs’ hyping of the crazy birther conspiracy and did not once mention CNN President Jon Klein’s defense of Dobbs. Equally egregious Foser, notes, “Kurtz has written about Dobbs and CNN in recent weeks, and he has failed to disclose his ties to CNN.

  • In a July 22 Media Notes column, Kurtz mentioned Dobbs in a section on birthers—but Kurtz didn’t disclose his financial relationship with CNN.
  • In an August 3 Media Notes column, Kurtz mentioned Dobbs in a section on birthers—but Kurtz didn’t disclose his financial relationship with CNN.
  • In an August 3 Media Backtalk online discussion, Kurtz answered two questions that referenced CNN and three that referenced Dobbs. But Kurtz never disclosed his financial relationship with CNN.”

Foser added in a later update that Kurtz devoted virtually an entire Media Notes column to a profile of AOL’s Politics Daily site, without bothering to tell readers that this free PR in the Washington Post was being donated by a fellow who happened to be cashing checks from the same company that owned the site.

Given that The Washington Post is, together with The New York Times, America’s most important and influential news source—and given that following Alexander’s column and Kurtz’s assurances, it is inconceivable that its top brass are unaware not only of the nature of this conflict but of Kurtz’s devil-may-care attitude about his promises to the paper’s ombudsman with regard to said conflicts—it strikes us as a fair conclusion to draw that the Post just does not give a damn. And if The Washington Post does not give a damn, then the rest of business can much more easily pretend that all this noise the rest of us are making about so-called “media ethics” is just that: noise. And their readers and viewers would have the very right to conclude, with Mr. Wolffe and Mr. Stein, that the fix is in, and the rest of their editors and journalists are just as corrupt, and just as cynical.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.