Maybe It's Not So Obvious  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2003

Maybe It's Not So Obvious   

Everyone knows conflicts of interest taint credibility. So why do they keep cropping up?

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


What were they thinking? A network news anchor agrees to appear in videos paid for by drug manufacturers. Local TV reporters maintain financial stakes in companies they cover. Considering the damage done to their reputations, it seems pretty clear they weren't thinking at all.

CNN's Aaron Brown was in good company when he enlisted to host a video series called "American Medical Review." Walter Cronkite had signed up too, replacing Morley Safer of CBS' "60 Minutes," who'd been hosting the program for several years. The trouble is the "review," which looks like a newscast and airs on PBS stations, is a corporate-sponsored video--drug manufacturers and others pay to be included. When the New York Times published details of the deal, both Brown and Cronkite backed out.

It's hard to believe that experienced journalists wouldn't have seen the arrangement as inappropriate from the start. The companies involved wanted to buy some credibility, and what better way than to have their messages fronted by respected journalists? Cronkite, after all, was once considered the most trusted man in America. You can't blame the companies for wanting to buy that integrity, but you sure can wonder about a journalist who's willing to sell it.

Independence is one of those bedrock journalism principles, right up there with telling the truth. When journalists compromise their independence, everything they report becomes suspect. And yet they keep doing it.

Remember the Rhode Island nightclub fire? It broke out in February while WPRI-TV was shooting a feature there, and the tape was seen around the world. But why did the station choose that particular club for a story on nightclub safety? Because reporter Jeff Derderian was a co-owner of the club.

The station defended its actions, saying it had no plan to publicize or promote the nightclub in the story. But that argument doesn't hold up. The feature would have undoubtedly put the club in a good light. "This club had no [safety] issues," News Director Gary Brown told Fox News. That positive spin alone might have brought the club more business, and Derderian would have benefited financially.

In San Francisco, KTVU morning show host Ross McGowan also owned a piece of a bar, the MatrixFillmore. His business partner, city supervisor Gavin Newsom, just happened to be a frequent guest on McGowan's program, and Newsom became a candidate for mayor. McGowan insisted he never went easy on Newsom on the air because of their business relationship. But News Director Ed Chapuis was concerned the business deal left the perception of a conflict of interest, which could taint the credibility of the entire news operation. Within days of the arrangement becoming public knowledge, McGowan decided to sell his $25,000 stake in Newsom's limited partnership.

In Chicago, WMAQ-TV food critic David Lissner was fired this spring for appearing in a full-page newspaper ad touting a local restaurant without station approval. A station executive told the Chicago Sun-Times that the action violated Channel 5's "integrity policies." But WMAQ had put Lissner on the air for more than a year despite an obvious conflict. As the publisher of Chicago's Restaurant Guide, which is paid by restaurants to include their listings, Lissner had a direct financial connection to the businesses he covered.

Why do these kinds of situations keep popping up? The simple answer is there's not much to prevent them. KTVU has policies addressing conflict of interest, but Chapuis said they are unclear and are now being revised. LIN TV, which owns WPRI, has a code of business and ethics that urges employees to avoid financial interests that might influence their judgment and forbids investment in any entity that does business with the company or is a competitor. But there's no written ban against investing in other kinds of businesses, and no specific mention of whether it's OK for an employee to report on his own business interests.

CNN's policy manual has a long section on conflict of interest, but Aaron Brown's agreement was approved by his bosses. In a statement, CNN said the video series was presented as "independent news vignettes for PBS stations over which Aaron was going to have editorial oversight." Maybe somebody should have checked before the New York Times blew the whistle.

Perhaps it should be obvious that these kinds of deals are wrong, but apparently it's not, or at least not to everyone. So before it happens again, television stations and group owners should spell it out. That still might not be enough to keep some journalists from stepping over the line, but at least they'd know there is a line that simply should not be crossed.

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