Archive for the ‘Conflict of interest’ Category


Lawsuit Accuses Fox News of Collaboration With White House

Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

Fox News is the target of a new lawsuit claiming the channel collaborated with a supporter of President Donald Trump and the White House to fabricate a story to draw attention from the ongoing investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

The new lawsuit filed by a Fox News commentator alleges one of the organization’s reporters attributed fabricated quotes to him, according to a story by NPR‘s David Folkenflik, who broke the story on Tuesday morning. The quotes are tied to a now-retracted Fox News story that alleged a cover-up involving the 2016 murder of a Democratic National Committee staff member.

For a complete and thorough look at the details of the lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, please read Folkenflik’s report. People must keep in mind that the lawsuit’s allegations are unfounded at this point in time, however.

 

If the allegations are found to be true, the actions are likely to be one of the most significant breaches of the public’s trust in the history of modern journalism.

In a post on Twitter, The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi published a reaction from Fox News.

 

While the truth behind the Fox News story remains unknown, there is no question that the channel and its affiliate in Washington, D.C. engaged in – at the very least – irresponsible journalism. In addition to the accuracy of story’s underlying information evaporating soon after its publication, the news organizations likely caused a substantial amount of pain for the murdered staffer’s family and friends by promoting unfounded theories. The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics emphasizes that journalist must minimize harm.

Journalists and news organizations pursuing the story of the new lawsuit should keep in mind that people have already been harmed in this situation. They should not contribute to that pain.


This post was updated to include the reaction from Fox News.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

 

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TV Execs, Journos Fail Viewers With Off-the-record Meeting

Screenshot of Peter Finch portraying Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.

Screenshot of Peter Finch portraying Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.

Television networks sent their executives and A-list personalities on Monday to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan for an off-the-record meeting with President-elect Donald Trump.

The meeting between the executives, personalities and Trump is a slap in the face to journalists who see a new presidential administration as a way to recommit themselves to thorough and responsible journalism.

Accounts of the meeting differ, but CNN’s Brian Stelter reports Trump criticized some of the networks at the start. The future president also asked – allegedly – for a cordial relationship between the press and his White House administration.

Only those who were in the meeting will truly know what happened thanks to the networks foolishly agreeing “not to talk about the substance of the conversations.” What’s worse, few – if any – of the journalists and personalities attending today’s meeting appeared to disclose on air that they met with Trump.

Off-the-record meetings with presidents and elected officials are not new or uncommon occurrences. In fact, stories about off-the-record meetings between journalists and presidents date back to at least Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

Precedent does not mean journalists and news organizations should blindly agree to off-the-record meetings with presidents and other government officials, however. Time, place and circumstance should dictate that decision.

In this case, Trump repeatedly harassed and taunted the press during his campaign. He actively worked to discredit fair and responsible pieces of journalism. Additionally, Trump so far failed to establish a protective press pool, which is a small group of journalists that travels with high-ranking officials.

While Trump can remedy some of these grievances, it should come as no surprise to journalists that presidents and their administrations sometimes work to make the press ineffective. The job of journalists and news organizations is to be stronger and rise above those challenges.

The major television networks that attended today’s meeting are  one of the most powerful forces in the country, but their agreement to keep its contents off the record suggests they will not use that power to fight for access or for the benefit of their viewers and listeners. Instead, they will likely beg for access and feed on the scraps thrown to them by the incoming administration.

The American people who depend on those news organizations deserve better.

The New York Times and its executives will meet tomorrow with Trump, according to Stelter. The meeting will start off the record and lead into an on-the-record conversation with reporters and columnists from the newspaper.

My hope is that journalists and news organizations realize the amount of power they still wield, and use it for the benefit of their readers, viewers, listeners and all Americans.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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NBC Owes Viewers Explanations About Trump Tape

Photo Illustration of NBC's Mobile Homepage 10/08/16

Photo Illustration of NBC’s Mobile Homepage 10/08/16

A tape released Friday sent the 2016 U.S. presidential election into chaos, and led to prominent Republicans calling for Donald Trump, the party’s nominee, to drop out of the race. The tape should also prompt a serious discussion about the editorial oversight of NBC News.

The tape, which was first published by The Washington Post, exposes a 2005 conversation between Trump and Billy Bush, who was then co-anchor of Access Hollywood – distributed by a subsidiary of NBCUniversal. Bush is now “co-host of the third hour of NBC News’ ‘TODAY,’ according to the show’s website.

Sources at NBC told CNN’s Brian Stelter that Access Hollywood and its news division were working on stories about the 2005 conversation before The Washington Post published its story. Since any news stories about the conversation from NBC would also severely harm one of the network’s stars, it’s important to remain skeptical about those reports.

Even if Stelter’s sources are correct, NBC should realize – at the very least – the cross pollination of talent between its subsidiaries is harming the reputation of the organization’s news division. At most, NBC News’ fundamental journalism mission has been usurped by the larger organization’s bottom line.

As someone who often speaks out when news organizations violated the basic ethical principles of journalism, I often choose not to write about violations involving TODAY or ABC’s Good Morning America. Those shows have a long history of cringe-worthy ethical violations, and cries of foul fall on deaf ears.

Remaining questions about the existence of the 2005 tape  point to more systemic issues at NBC, however. For example, why are NBC News employees colluding with Access Hollywood? Also, does NBC News know of any similar conversations caught on tape for other NBC programs, such as The Apprentice?

There are also legitimate questions surrounding Bush’s future role within NBC News. For example, will he be back Monday on TODAY? I don’t think bringing Bush back before the end of the 2016 election can be viewed as a responsible decision.

People who get their news from NBC deserve answers and explanations to these questions. They also deserve an assurance that NBC News will be independent from other divisions of the parent organization. Until then, I think it’s justifiable to remain skeptical about the editorial oversight of an organization that allows its entertainment and journalism arms to regularly intermingle at the expense of the American people.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Debating the Role of Debate Moderators

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The upcoming U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates are high-stakes events for the candidates. The debates will also be defining moments for the five journalists tasked with moderating the conversations.

Each journalist will be scrutinized on a number of factors, such as the questions they ask and their ability to control the debate. More than ever, the journalists will also be judged on whether they decide to “fact check” the candidates’ statements.

The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called on moderators to correct her opponent if he lies during the debate. The campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump believes it’s not the role of the moderators to fact check the candidates, however.

The truth is that journalists moderating debates – whether among presidential candidates or city council members – can’t allow blatant inaccuracies to go uncorrected. The journalists also can’t be expected to catch every lie or misstatement.

Journalists should seek truth and report it, according to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. They don’t shed that responsibility just because they’re moderating a debate.

The truth is not partisan or biased.

If one of the candidates, for example, misstates the starting date of the invasion of Iraq, the moderator should be free to say the correct date is March 20, 2003.

Realistically, the journalists are limited by their own knowledge and certainty about a specific topic. The journalists shouldn’t barge into the discussion if they’re unsure about their own facts or figures.

The journalists also shouldn’t attempt to correct candidates on broad statements about policy issues, such as health care or national security.  Each candidate by now should be well versed in his/her opponent’s policies and ready to debate those matters.

So the question is not whether a debate moderator should correct candidates. The correct question is whether a debate moderator appropriately and fairly corrected the candidates.


Andrew M. Seaman is the ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Theater of the Absurd: Cable News Contributors

unnamed

Photo Credit: Flickr

Few stories are more common during election years than controversies surrounding cable news contributors, who are paid to come on air at the beck and call of news organizations.

Fox News let Newt Gingrich go earlier this week as reports surfaced that he may be Donald Trump’s running mate on the GOP’s White House ticket. Social media then erupted Wednesday after a website reported Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, is receiving severance payments from the campaign while being employed by CNN.

The concern is usually that these cable news channels crossed an ethical line by employing people who are either too cozy with candidates or may be considering their own run for office.

But to chastise Fox News, CNN or MSNBC for employing contributors too close to presidential campaigns excuses the fact that these cable news channels are already paying newsmakers for interviews – also known as checkbook journalism.

As speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for four years, Gingrich held one of the most powerful positions in the country. As Trump’s campaign manager, Lewandowski was one of the closest advisers to a person who may become the next president.

Fox News and CNN are guaranteed almost exclusive access to newsworthy information by signing up Gingrich and Lewandowski, respectively, as contributors.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says that ethical journalists should not pay for access to news.

There are a few ethical issues surrounding checkbook journalism. One is that offering payments will lead people to provide information to make a few dollars instead of speaking when it’s in everyone’s best interest. There is also the question of whether the information that is paid for is true or just what the source thinks the journalists wants to hear.

As Jack Shafer pointed out years ago, there are also practical reasons why journalists shouldn’t pay for news.

Calling out any news organization for checkbook journalism is a bit futile, because many regularly pay sources. Some offer money outright while others are more inventive. SPJ does point out egregious examples of checkbook journalism from time to time.

Chastising cable news channels and their contributors for being too cozy with campaigns is beyond futile, however. The cries are too late. By the time a former speaker of the house, campaign manager, politician or other newsmaker serving as a paid contributor becomes too close to the news being discussed, the journalism ethics train already left the station.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Rolling Stone Gathers No Accolades

Rolling Stone ChapoA magazine that staked the reputation of countless people on one person’s account just a year ago allowed a suspected murderer and drug lord control over an article.


While Sean Penn’s name appears on an article published tonight on Rolling Stone’s website, an accompanying note makes it clear Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera – known as El Chapo – controlled its content.

Guzmán was recaptured Friday in Mexico after escaping from one of the country’s most secure prisons last year.

The Rolling Stone story cautions that “an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.”

Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable. The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story – whether the subject requests changes or not. The writer, who in this case is an actor and activist, may write the story in a more favorable light and omit unflattering facts in an attempt to not to be rejected.

Forfeiting its editorial control to Guzman is the latest misstep in the lauded magazine’s modern history. Last Spring, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism chastised Rolling Stone in a report for publishing a severely flawed article about campus rape that largely relied on the account of one person. The magazine responded to the report by doing nothing.

Earlier this week, a rejection letter from Rolling Stone’s Hunter S. Thompson circulated around the Internet. In his words, Rolling Stone, “what kind of lame, half-mad bullshit are you trying to sneak over on us?” We expect better. Get it together.


Andrew M. Seaman is chair of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Something Odd is Happening at the Las Vegas Review-Journal

Las Vegas

Las Vegas

A series of odd and concerning events occurred this past week involving the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and it’s not over.


First, the paper is sold for a large profit and the newspaper’s journalists were told not to worry about the new owners’ identities. Now, the paper is reporting its journalists were ordered in a memo a month before the paper’s sale by the then-owners GateHouse Media to investigate three judges, which included one hearing a case involving one of the paper’s new owners.

“The memo, authored by Review-Journal Deputy Editor James G. Wright, notes the initiative was undertaken without explanation from GateHouse and over the objection of the newspaper’s management, and there was no expectation that anything would be published,” according to a story appearing Friday on the paper’s website.

District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, who was one of the three judges observed by reporters for two weeks, is currently hearing a case involving Sheldon Adelson and his company, the story reported.

Adelson and his family were revealed as the new owners of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a story posted Wednesday on the paper’s website. The family confirmed the purchase Thursday in an editor’s note on the paper’s second page.

None of the 15,000 words the reporters wrote by mid-November about their two weeks monitoring the three judges were ever published, the new story reports.

However, a Connecticut paper operated by the overseer of the family-backed company that now owns the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a story at the end of November critical of the Nevada judge hearing the case involving Adelson.

If this wasn’t strange enough, the article lists as the author Edward Clarkin, who is basically a ghost.

“Attempts to locate Clarkin have been unsuccessful. Herald executives did not respond to requests for information, but a newspaper staffer said no one by that name works there,” according to the paper. “A nationwide search turned up no writer by that name, though laudatory reviews from Edward Clarkin, identified as being from the New Britain Herald and a sister paper, the Bristol Press, appear on the website of Tennessee mystery writer Keith Donnelly.”

Michael Schroeder, who now manages the Adelson-backed company overseeing the Las Vegas newspaper and owns the company the operates the Connecticut newspaper, declined to tell the reporters “how the article came about or discuss Clarkin’s role at the papers.”

What does this all mean? Michael Reed, the chief executive officer of the company that sold the paper to the Adelson family and still oversees the day-to-day operations, says nothing.

The paper quotes Reed as saying they’re trying to create a story. They should be focusing on the positive, not the negative, he told the reporters.

Frankly, the entire ordeal feels like the famed magic shows of Las Vegas. There are so many moving parts that it confuses the audience and makes them unsure what’s going on.

As the Society turned to its Code of Ethics earlier this week to demand the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s new owners to reveal themselves, I too want to point out that a core element of responsible journalism is accountability and transparency.

Part of being accountable and transparent is to “respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.” Until that happens, the world is left with at least a couple questions.

  • Why were the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s reporters told to spend two week observing judges? If it was – as the paper’s former owner claims, a multi-newsroom project, name the other newsrooms involved.
  • Does Edward Clarkin exist? Typically a person’s existence is an important and easily verifiable fact.

While this is very concerning, it’s important to note that there is a possibility that this is all an odd coincidence. However, the questions remain until the Las Vegas paper’s previous owner (and current operator) and the overseers of the Connecticut paper are transparent.

Frankly, the journalists in the Las Vegas Review-Journal endured enough turmoil over the past week. As shown by the reporters’ dogged and admirable pursuit of these stories, they are hard workers and good journalists. They deserve at least to know answers to these basic questions

Also, the people of Las Vegas deserve to know whether their state’s largest newspaper will produce responsible and thorough information to learn about their community – local and global. Quality information allows people to make informed decision and participate in democracy.

The questions are simple, but not trivial.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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All Student Journalists Need the First Amendment

Flickr/Ed Uthman (http://bit.ly/1KHZL70)

Flickr/Ed Uthman (http://bit.ly/1KHZL70)

Few actions are more offensive than educational institutions stomping on the First Amendment rights of students.


Those breaches include the all-too-frequent contamination of student media by administrators and marketing officials.

Butler University, a private school in Indianapolis, recently removed and replaced the faculty adviser of its student newspaper with one of the institution’s spokesmen, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal (IBJ).

While the reason for her removal wasn’t explained, Loni McKown told the news organization she believes it’s due to accidentally forwarding a confidential email to the paper’s student editor. McKown remains on the faculty of the university, but was told termination is possible if she advises students working for the paper, according to the IBJ.

Regardless of the reason for McKown’s removal, Butler University should be ashamed and embarrassed for replacing her with its own spokesman. There are obvious lines in what is and is not acceptable in journalism, and one must wonder whether the people making decisions for Butler University’s school newspaper and journalism school understand those very basic principles.

Educational institutions are small ecosystems that mimic the larger world. The administration and its student government are the politicians of that system, and the student media is its proverbial fourth estate. No U.S. citizen should accept the government restraining the press, and that should not stop at the grounds of any educational institution.

Student media at educational institutions serve two very important purposes. The first purpose is to inform the university community about events – both good and bad – impacting their lives. The second purpose is to train students who will someday go on to become journalists and news consumers. People should question an intuition’s motives and value if it ever tries to disturb either of those missions.

In this case, the IBJ writes that the Butler University spokesman appointed as the new adviser offers an impressive resume that includes decades of experience at one of the U.S.’s great newspapers and a year serving as the school newspaper’s public editor. Still, would the average person feel comfortable with one of President Obama’s press secretaries editing the New York Times?

Student media are the laboratories for many of the U.S.’s future journalists, who are the torchbearers of public enlightenment. The Society of Professional Journalists firmly states in its Code of Ethics that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.  If people allow the education and training of the country’s future journalists to be compromised, they are taking a sledgehammer to one of the tenets of democracy.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

 

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Media embeds – alive and well

If you think the practice of embedding “experts” into TV news programs is over, think again.

In a story for an upcoming edition of The Nation, Sebastian Jones takes a fresh look at how frequently pundits’ other roles – as paid lobbyists for companies highly invested on those very topics of discussion – go unreported on the air. (I talked to Jones for his story and was briefly quoted.)

Jones’ story follows the Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of David Barstow of The New York Times, who thoroughly detailed a deep-rooted propaganda-like effort by the Pentagon to secretly sway public opinion about the war in Iraq. Here are Barstow’s stories about the program in general and focusing on retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

News programs fail to disclose analysts’ financial connections to the topics of  which they speak, a blatant conflict of interest that rages on because networks enable the masquerade.

SPJ’s Ethics Committee has criticized the lack of disclosure about these conflicts (see statements here and here), but the networks continue to thumb their noses at the public.

-Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

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Trading one role for another

This does not fit perfectly into the “report vs. help” discussion about coverage of Haiti, but it reflects an understanding of the separation of roles.

Minnesota TV anchor Julie Pearce, who is also a nurse, decided that she wanted to help Haiti earthquake victims more than she wanted to report the news from afar.

An SPJ statement cautioned against trying to be both a rescuer and a reporter at the same time.

-Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

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