Tag Archives: CNN

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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What was CNN protecting when it sat on news of Saddam’s brutality?

May 5. 2003

In an extraordinary confession last month, CNN’s news chief wrote that during his dozen visits to Baghad since the first Gulf War he personally learned of savagery inflicted on ordinary Iraqis — among them his own employees — that CNN did not report for fear of reprisals against innocents.

Eason Jordan titled his The New York Times disclosure, “The News We Kept to Ourselves.” He said an Iraqi CNN employee was tortured so that he might denounce Jordan as a CIA agent, and a Kuwaiti source was butchered. He recounted a session he had with Uday, Saddam’s psychopathic son, who vowed to murder King Hussain of Jordan and two fugitive sons-in-law of Saddam the king was harboring. CNN reported none of that.

Jordan’s column touched off a squall of controversy. Sympathizers, among them journalists with experience in squalid police states like Saddam’s, said that soft-pedaling distasteful realities has long been the price of access. They argued that the partial truths they relate are preferable to the informational void we’d otherwise have.

Others wondered just how much CNN was prepared to swallow to keep the Baghdad bureau open. It was a jewel in the network’s crown since 1991, when CNN alone among Western networks kept reporting from the ravaged capital.

Was news chief Jordan worried about protecting the innocent — or protecting CNN’s franchise, however hobbled the reporting? Was CNN’s silence, as the Washington Times asserted, part of a “propaganda-for-profits deal with Saddam?”

The portrait of Saddam’s Iraq that emerged from Jordan’s account goes way beyond the odd sadistic encounter. It was a land of capricious terror where speaking to a journalist invited torture, dismemberment, death or all three, if the subsequent report displeased somebody. Even escorts and translators might be punished.

The issue here isn’t the depravity of Saddam’s Iraq. It’s whether the accommodations CNN made to stay there so compromised its operations that its reporting was fatally corrupted: Jordan’s staff, he told The Washington Post, wouldn’t “report anything that jeopardized people’s lives.” What was left? Did CNN suppress the most fundamental truths about the regime? Was that equivalent to CBS retaining its Berlin bureau in 1943 in exchange for silence on the Holocaust?

Why didn’t CNN simply shutter its bureau and redouble its reporting on Iraq from unhindered vantage points in neighboring countries?

Jordan insists CNN did fine, and notes that its bureau was shut a half-dozen times and 10 correspondents either expelled or refused entry.

Maybe. But he also assured Poynter Institute ethicist Bob Steele that the cases in his column were the only horror stories he held back.

That is nonsense. If those were the only atrocities CNN’s staff knew about they weren’t looking very hard. Since CNN wouldn’t air what its chief already knew, its reporters would hardly go digging for more. Plainly, CNN decided it couldn’t report torture safely — safely for its staff and sources, safely for its corporate presence.

And were omissions the only issue, or did CNN shill for Saddam? A harsh appraisal in The New Republic last fall accused the network of fawning. Saddam’s 100 percent sweep in a manifestly bogus election was “a vote of defiance against the United States.” A report on Saddam’s birthday declared him “more than a symbol, a powerful force who has survived three major U.S.-led attacks since the Gulf War … Not just standing tall but building up.”

So what if Saddam bullied the world’s most powerful news network into subservience. Did it matter? Who knows. But perhaps, had Saddam’s image been more clearly exposed as ruthless and homicidal, his luster in the Arab streets would have been dimmed, diplomatic pressures on him intensified — and the recent war averted.

For the news audience, a more enduring question concerns the unacknowledged compromises journalists make, routinely and invisibly — with sources, publicists, apparatchiks, whose connivance is indispensable to the news process, and whose approval has indisputably more impact than the public’s.

To what degree are you, as reader or viewer, the person to whom the news is truly intended — or are you eavesdropping on another transaction? When does news become currency, with the news organization purchasing what it needs with generous and judicious reporting?

The notion of programming as payment isn’t new. Marshall McLuhan suggested TV shows are the payoff viewers get for watching advertisements.

For a TV journalist, the public is vague and amorphous: Viewers won’t scrutinize every reference to Saddam to determine if it’s respectful. But censors will. Their jobs — and perhaps their lives — depend on it.

So when do they become the primary audience for which the message is crafted?

Unfortunately, the conditions under which CNN operated in Iraq aren’t so different, in their essentials, from those that many reporters face. So they tailor their reporting to sustain their access to the sources they need.

The public is wedded to the absurd belief that journalists pillage their sources. Reporters are far more likely to coddle, flatter and pander to them. Even when they’re monsters.