Keeping conflict of interest under control

January 4, 2009

News that Dan Abrams, former anchor and top executive with MSNBC, is launching a new PR firm that will hire practicing journalists to advise corporate clients on handling the media has drawn pretty mild criticism, considering.

That may say something about the respect for Abrams and his collaborator, ex-Huffington Post media writer Rachel Sklar, among commentators who might otherwise be appalled by a plan that skates on the thinnest of ice when it comes to fundamental principles governing conflict of interest.

But I think it also says something about the obsolescence of traditional rules that are supposed to keep journalists free of conflicts. It’s not that the business doesn’t still need rules; but they’re getting hard to frame both sensibly and realistically, as the lack of outrage over Abrams’ plan suggests.

In its essentials, Abrams Research will offer qualified and well-connected journalists lucrative off-screen engagements with private entities that need a hand with their media relations –managing a PR crisis, positioning a product rollout, fashioning a new sports sponsorship.  The idea, as one fan told The Wall Street Journal, is that “working journalists are in a unique position to understand what will appeal to other working journalists.”

Plainly, such extracurricular consulting engenders duties and loyalties to the paying client, which is why it has traditionally been shunned as incompatible with the obligations journalists owe to the audience they principally serve. The PR industry is laced with former, not active, journalists. Your skills are supposed to be applied in the public’s interest, explaining, exposing and holding institutions accountable – not helping newsmakers charm, impress, seduce or outwit reporters just like you.

How likely is it that a client would hire as a consultant a reporter who’d been unremittingly tough and critical? How hardnosed is the reporter who’s got one eye on some downstream consulting likely to be? At what point does the day job become a brand-builder, a way to audition for the advisory work that offers, in a time of shrinking news budgets, a future?

But my concern is how the Abrams proposal, though ethically problematic, accurately reflects the professional realities of the new media world.

Increasingly the journalism we see – news and topical commentary — is produced by people who make a living from a variety of sources. News organizations have furiously sought to lower costs by relying on more part-timers. More “amateurs” are doing work indistinguishable from traditional journalism. More and more, wage-earners in the knowledge industries are odd-jobbing as journalists, teachers, marketers, publicists, or all of the above. Moonlighting is no longer an income supplement, it’s a career path, conducted amid an unavoidable potential for conflicts of interest.

In interviews Abrams has said his firm’s operatives would not represent clients they cover, and would honor whatever ethics rules prevail where they now work. Those are pretty flimsy constraints, however, which do nothing more than forbid what’s already forbidden.

More vexing are the ethical ambiguities Abrams identifies. On NPR’s On the Media, he challenged host Bob Garfield on whether a freelance journalist who had written an opinion column should be prohibited from working as a consultant. (Garfield wasn’t sure.) It’s that free-floating world of occasional journalists that may well constitute Abrams’ best talent prospects. “There is no question that there are more top people who are freelancing or recently moved on to other careers,” he told PR Week.

So what rules should govern them? Those ambiguities need to be addressed, not exploited.  Abrams could make a major contribution to a beleaguered area of professional ethics by coming up with real world rules that make sense.

The goal is to try to keep journalism from getting any dirtier than it is. The goal is to keep loyalties straight and journalistic judgments unimpaired. At a minimum, I’d say nobody should operate in the same industrial space simultaneously as both a PR advisor and a journalist.  Nobody should take money from a company that has been affected by his or her journalism in the past, say, 24 months, or report on it for a similarly substantial period after any consulting work.

Handling conflicts of interest – ensuring clear loyalties and clean hands — is emerging as perhaps the signature ethical challenge of the new media age, with journalists increasingly serving a variety of masters. Abrams Research debuts at just the right moment to provoke a conversation about honesty and corruption that couldn’t be more timely.

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