The prickly problem of conflict of interest in cable news

Published: November 9, 2009

I watch Howard Kurtz’s “Reliable Sources” media-review show most Sunday mornings on CNN. That’s partly because since Fox News scrapped its weekly “News Watch,” it’s the only regular program on national television that looks at the news media critically. That’s also because Kurtz, the Washington Post’s chief media writer, does a good job bringing in knowledgeable people to talk about the major traps the media fell into that week.

That said, I don’t love the program. The defunct Fox show, with regulars such as Jane Hall, Neal Gabler  and Cal Thomas, was far more thoughtful and provocative, a weekly gathering of smart people who actually conversed with each other and who tried to puzzle out why on earth the news media do what they do.

“Reliable Sources,” on the other hand, is like a Starbucks latte: predictable, frothy and over-caffeinated. A typical show zips along, hitting much the same headliners that dominate the rest of the Sunday talk circuit, albeit flipping them over and asking whether the media handled them well. Then it fusses over some non-story, typically to deplore the excessive coverage it received, thereby contributing more excess. It remains comfortably within the imaginative nexus bounded by Capitol Hill and Georgetown, with little input from the provinces, almost nothing from abroad.

But it’s unique and I watch it, so I was interested in last week’s Washington Post column by the paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, about conflicts of interest involving Post reporters—notable among them Howard Kurtz.

TV news is firmly within Kurtz’s beat, and Alexander wrote that “being paid by CNN presents an inescapable conflict that is at odds with Post rules.” Those rules say a Post staffer “cannot accept payment from any person, company or organization that he or she covers.” Alexander praised Kurtz’s reporting: “Still,” he asked, “would The Post allow a reporter who covers energy to be paid on the side by a big oil company?”

Now, I take conflict of interest seriously, and I’ve suggested it’s the signature ethical issue of the new media age, with more and more people who offer news and commentary depending on multiple income streams from sources that may be implicated in what they say as journalists.

Reasonable people may quarrel over whether such things as political sympathies or religious affiliations should disqualify reporters from covering certain matters. But nobody, I think, would deny that the bedrock of any conflicts policy must be a straight-up ban on taking money from entities or people you write about.

This, Kurtz plainly does.

It’s fair to say some of that goes with the territory—and it’s a territory we need populated: We must have critical coverage of the media, and unless we depend entirely on unpaid bloggers, coverage will come from people employed by, yes, other media. So any media critic, especially one working for a powerfully influential organization, has a huge, continuing problem to overcome: How to deal with his or her own employer’s holdings, entanglements and rivalries?

The question isn’t settled by looking at how Kurtz handles a given topic in his Post columns, whether he consistently discloses his relationship to CNN (or, for that matter, its owner Time Warner), or whether his TV guest list tilts toward journalists from the Post and CNN, his two paymasters.  Media Matters for America, the liberal media watchdog, has been bird-dogging Kurtz for some time, and has concluded that he pulls his punches on-air when it comes to CNN while bedeviling rivals MSNBC and Fox News. See: http://mediamatters.org/columns/200911020024

Still, what makes conflicts of interest so insidious is that their effect may be impossible to catalogue.  They make themselves felt not in clear-cut favoritism but through impaired judgment: The stories that are skipped, or the elements of stories that are done that are omitted or downplayed.

These are judgment calls that may (or may not) be a concession to that offstage loyalty. Who can say? But that’s precisely why an outside entanglement should be barred—not because bias can be proven, but because bias would be its perfectly natural and wholly plausible byproduct.

If a CNN newsroom employee offered to cover the TV news industry for The Post, the paper would unquestionably say no. A news outfit of the Post’s stature simply can’t entrust its coverage of an industry to a stakeholder in it, no matter how accomplished a journalist he is. There’s plenty of other media for Howard Kurtz to cover.

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One response to “The prickly problem of conflict of interest in cable news

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