The Society of Professional Journalists, the "leading professional association of working journalists," overhauled its Code of Ethics to include new transparency provisions partly in response to 60 Minutes' Benghazi debacle and CNN's failure to disclose Newt Gingrich's political ties, the group's ethics chair said Monday.
He also cited Washington Post columnist George Will's failure to disclose his ties to conservative group Americans for Prosperity as the type of conflict of interest journalists should seek to avoid.
On September 6, SPJ announced the release of its first new Code of Ethics in 18 years, Smith said. The group explained that the "code is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior."
Kevin Smith, outgoing SPJ ethics chair, told Media Matters the revisions were done in part to address the growing problems with transparency, including news outlets failing to disclose clear conflicts of interest.
"I think there is a lot of room to criticize a lot of media today for their lack of transparency," Smith said following the release of the new code on Saturday. "On Fox, I've seen it happen, on CNN, the Wall Street Journal, these conflicts that show up, they do not reveal them in the story."
In the release announcing the changes, SPJ stated:
The idea of transparency makes a debut in this code. Although this code does not abdicate the principle of being independent of conflicts that may compromise integrity or damage credibility, it does note more strongly that when these conflicts can't be avoided, it is imperative that journalists make every effort to be transparent about their actions.
Asked which specific incidents prompted the change, Smith pointed to two major ethical failures that emerged in late 2013.
In October 2013, 60 Minutes aired a since-retracted segment promoting a book written by Dylan Davies, a supposed eyewitness to the 2012 Benghazi attacks whose accounts were later discredited. In its initial segment, CBS failed to disclose that Davies' book was published by Simon & Schuster imprint Threshold Editions, which is owned by CBS Corporation.
"Once they found out [a CBS company] was publishing, wouldn't it make sense there were some internal pressures on Lara Logan to rush that vetting?" Smith said. "I think the book deal is what forced that interview on to TV before it was ready. They could interview him and promote the book."
Smith also cited CNN failing to disclose Crossfire co-host Newt Gingrich's financial contributions -- through his PAC -- to various politicians he had discussed or interviewed on-air. CNN actually changed its ethics policy to make clear that Gingrich's actions were not violations.
"That's problematic, right?" Smith said about CNN. "Don't you believe the audience deserves a full accountability of someone who has benefited financially or contributed their work to a particular candidate?"
George Will has found himself in financial disclosure trouble several times in the past -- from failing to reveal his money connections to Wisconsin's conservative Bradley Foundation when citing their data to writing columns critical of former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's opponents without mentioning his wife worked for Perry's campaign.
So when he appeared at a VIP dinner to kick off last weekend's Americans for Prosperity (AFP) Defending the American Dream summit, Media Matters was interested in whether he was paid for the appearance by the influential conservative political group backed by the powerful Koch brothers, as well as who paid for his travel and expenses.
But despite repeated attempts by Media Matters to get answers from Will, AFP, his syndicator, and others, nobody is talking.
Because Will routinely promotes Koch-supported candidates and policies in his syndicated column, several journalism ethicists raised concerns about his connection to the right-wing political group and urged that questions about payments for his appearance be answered given Will's prominence in the conservative movement and his past failure to disclose.
"If Will does intend to write about Americans for Prosperity's agenda," and wants to behave ethically "he should have purchased a ticket to the dinner equal to the value of the meal (thus leaving nothing extra for the AFP's later lobbying use)," said Tom Fiedler, Dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and a former Miami Herald editor and political editor. "Of course, accepting an honorarium -- a payoff -- to attend the dinner would elevate the need for him to fully disclose all this if/when he would address AFP interests in a column."
But finding out if Will was paid, how much and by whom, is not that easy.
AFP Public Affairs Director Levi Russell said only: "He appeared and spoke with some of our supporters on Thursday night at a dinner, any of the speakers who come to our events, we don't discuss if they are paid or not."
He later said, "You are free to ask him." But calls and emails to Will were not returned.
Fred Hiatt, the Post's editorial page editor, said he did not know of Will's appearance fees, if any, and said he is not under the supervision of the editorial page since he is syndicated through the Washington Post Writers Group.
"With regard to George Will: he is not a 'staffer,' as you describe, and Washington Post staff rules do not apply to him," Hiatt wrote in an email. "He is an independent columnist and we subscribe to his column through the Washington Post Writers Group. Questions about his dining or travel should be addressed to him. I have confidence that he will tell readers, as he does from time to time, when he has a conflict that is relevant to a column he is writing."
The Washington Post Writers Group did not respond to an inquiry and no such information was provided by the Washington Speakers Bureau, with whom Will is contracted for outside appearances.
The Washington Post updated a piece from columnist Marc Thiessen to note his financial ties to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and indicated the need for better disclosure in future Thiessen columns on the 2016 presidential campaign, in response to inquiries from Media Matters.
On September 1, the Post published a column from Thiessen criticizing the idea of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney running for president again in 2016. In the piece, Thiessen identified Scott Walker as one of several "successful governors" that would be a preferable candidate. Thiessen co-authored Walker's 2013 book, a fact the columnist has previously disclosed when writing about the governor for the Post but which went unmentioned in his latest column.
Media Matters published a piece criticizing the Post and reached out to the paper's editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, who indicated that Thiessen's mention of Walker was "so glancing" that it did not warrant disclosure. But the Post subsequently reversed course, adding text to the column explaining, "Full disclosure: I co-authored a book with Walker."
Hiatt told Media Matters that he intends to meet with Thiessen to discuss the need for a "best approach" to disclosure in future columns touching on the 2016 presidential campaign.
"You are right that he has disclosed the relationship with Walker whenever he writes about Walker. In this case the reference to Walker was so glancing that I didn't think the co-authorship needed to be re-disclosed," Hiatt said in an email. "But you ask a reasonable question, and as the campaign proceeds I will talk with Marc about what the best approach will be."
The original lack of disclosure drew criticism from media ethicists who said leaving out the fact that Thiessen had co-authored a book with Walker is misleading to readers.
"I think this kind of entanglement is unacceptable," said Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. "Where you don't know if a particular writer's column is a payback for favors done in the past or auditions for jobs sought in the future. The reader is not in a place to make any intelligent decisions based on the off-screen relationships. The fact that he is getting money off screen is just not compatible with that."
As Wasserman suggested, Thiessen's extensive political career would make him a plausible hire in a Walker administration. The two have "developed a bond," according to the Post's own reporting.
Kevin Smith, ethics committee chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, said such financial connections "widen an already large divide between the journalist and the public's right to be accurately and fairly informed."
The Washington Post is publishing a week of climate change editorials aimed at sparking action on what editorial page editor Fred Hiatt calls "an existential threat to the planet."
In an interview with Media Matters about the ongoing series, Hiatt said that the Post views this as a moment "when the debate could begin to get unstuck." He believes that increasingly dire warnings from scientists about the threat of climate change and new regulations aimed at reducing carbon pollution could lead to new legislation on this issue. "So we wanted to encourage that process and also put forward as you'll see later in the week, a couple of approaches that we think would make a lot of sense and might at some point even be politically feasible."
The series marks a major effort from an editorial page that has in the past been criticized by progressives for publishing misleading columns about global warming.
"Over the long run it is an existential threat to the planet, I believe that, so you don't get much bigger than that," Hiatt said about the decision to run the week of editorials. "That doesn't mean that you can set aside other really big problems that are facing us today, but over time ... the longer we wait to do something about it, the greater the damage is likely to be and the more disruptive the response will be."
Among the potential solutions the paper is considering -- in an editorial slated for Wednesday -- is an effort to create some kind of carbon cap or permit fee, perhaps based on a proposal from Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), that would require utilities and others to pay a fee for levels of greenhouse gas emissions beyond a certain point.
"We have consistently said that the best way to do this is to put in some way to put a price on carbon, you can do that with carbon tax, you can do that with a cap and dividend system and we'll talk a little bit about the relative merits," Hiatt said. "Somehow you need to put a price on the greenhouse gases that we emit into the atmosphere so that people have to pay for the damage they are doing and they have an incentive to invest in new approaches."
Hiatt cited editorial writer Stephen Stromberg as the "driving force" behind the series, which will run through Friday.
"We've been talking about it for quite a while," he explained. "But whether to do it as an occasional series or all at once or call it a series or not call it a series we sort of probably decided on that a week or so ago."
Hiatt agreed it is unusual for a newspaper to devote an entire week of editorials to one issue, but said climate change warrants the attention.
"I've done this before, we did a big series on inequality maybe 10 years ago," he said. "I don't do it too often because I think it's asking a lot of readers who expect, they don't come to editorials for a long read. Every once in a while I think it makes sense and including as a way for us to say this is really an important issue, and one of the luxuries of an editorial page is we can write about stuff even if we don't have an immediate news peg."
While many national outlets are dismissing the indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as political payback, Texas journalists warn that such claims are misguided, incomplete, and the product of a "rush to judgment."
On August 15, news broke that Perry was being indicted for "abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant," both of which are felonies.
The charges relate to Perry's threatened and completed veto of $7.5 million in state funding for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit.
The case claims that the threat and veto were retaliation against Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat and the head of that unit, who ignored Perry's call for her to resign after she was convicted of drunk driving. At the time Lehmberg's unit was investigating corruption in a program Perry had heavily touted; if she had resigned, Perry would have appointed her replacement.
Following the announcement, a split has emerged among press covering the story. Much of the Lone Star State media has covered it as a valid legal proceeding and part of a greater picture of misconduct, while national media are treating Perry's indictment as mere politics.
The New York Times editorial board speculated that it "appears to be the product of an overzealous prosecution." Liberal New York magazine reporter Jonathan Chait labeled the indictment "unbelievably ridiculous." A USA Today editorial dubbed it a "flimsy indictment," while The Wall Street Journal called it "prosecutorial abuse for partisan purposes."
But Texas journalists say many on the national level don't know the facts and context and are too quick to judge from afar.
"The national pundits -- and some of them are very thoughtful people -- tend to focus first and most easily on the politics," said Wayne Slater, a columnist at the Dallas Morning News. "How does this particular event help or hurt that candidate in the potential horse race? Many reporters in Texas know Perry and are much more familiar with the details in this case, the fact that these are Republicans investigating this and that Perry has a history of hardball politics in forcing people out. This is a much more nuanced story than some in the Beltway understand."
Slater adds, "Rick Perry is getting good press because he has been masterful in the way he has framed this as a matter of partisan politics. Instinctively political journalists and reporters and outlets at some distance understand that Perry is winning the politics at the moment and that his narrative of events really comports with their general sense of how things work, that politicians threaten people and coerce people."
Forrest Wilder, who is covering the story for the Texas Observer, noted in a recent piece that the criminal complaint against Perry filed in June 2013 by Texans for Public Justice was assigned to a Republican judge who then appointed a former prosecutor in the George H.W. Bush administration as special prosecutor. In comments to Media Matters, Wilder said the charges were something "we should take seriously."
John Dean, former aide and counsel to President Richard Nixon, denounced right-wing media for "rewriting" the history of Watergate in order to attack President Obama, calling comparisons of current events to the historic scandal "nonsense" and "absolutely silliness."
August marks the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation in the wake of Watergate, a vast scandal that The New York Times explained included, "wiretapping, money laundering, destruction of documents, payment of hush money, character assassination, disinformation and deception -- all perpetrated by people at the highest levels of Government."
Dean served as Nixon's White House counsel during Watergate and is promoting a new book on the subject. In an interview with Media Matters, he slammed Republican officials and right-wing commentators who have compared Watergate's historic criminality to various supposed Obama administration scandals, with some going so far as to call for the president's removal from office.
"It's absolutely silliness," Dean said. "The conservative media just doesn't seem to understand the impeachment clause. It is not designed to ... besmirch a president with, and that's all they're doing with it."
"They don't understand it, they don't have a clue what happened during Watergate, do not have a clue," he added. "They want to distort that history, rewriting it, ignore it and then use it. That's the conservative media."
Dean's book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It (Viking 2014), is based on hours of tapes from Nixon's years at the White House, many of which were never catalogued, he said. It attempts to set the record straight on the scandal and Nixon's involvement, arguing the president's actions had broader implications than previously understood.
Today, however, Dean noted that conservative media "know" an Obama impeachment "can't prevail in a trial," and that "even talking about it is nonsense and there's no high crime. For them it's a high crime to be a Democrat and serve as president."
Citing conservative media's attempts to compare Watergate to a never-ending litany of supposed "scandals," including the Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi terrorist attacks and the IRS targeting investigation, Dean said, "I told my publisher that they should send a copy of my new book to every Republican in the House so they can understand what impeachable behavior looks like." Dean later declared: "It does not work at all, in fact they don't even raise to the level of scandal ... both Benghazi and IRS."
The Tampa Tribune has pulled a controversial column that alleged Disney is indoctrinating children with its "pro-gay agenda." The column, which was highlighted by Media Matters, had also drawn criticism from gay rights activists and Florida journalists.
On August 11, Douglas MacKinnon, who is listed on the since-pulled column as "Tribune staff," argued that Disney has been engaged in an underhanded effort to wrongly "indoctrinate" children. He also contended the company is trying to subtly push an agenda through its children's programming.
The piece, titled, "Disney's pro-gay agenda is disturbing," quoted an anonymous "former Disney executive" saying, "the company has taken direct aim at children to indoctrinate them about gay lifestyles and gay marriage through shows it airs on The Disney Channel and Disney XD."
MacKinnon later added:
The former executive said one of the more subtle techniques is to incorporate the colors of the gay-pride flag in as many shots as possible. The colors are woven in as a wink and nod to the gay community and show up on shirts, hats, posters, stacked cups and rings. The practice has been picked up by other children's networks and national advertisers. Disney also pushes the gay agenda by introducing openly gay characters and couples on its children's programing. Again, that is their right, but should they be in the business of entertaining children or indoctrinating them?
As of publication, Media Matters had received no response to requests for comment from the Tribune.* The column was removed midday today.
The newspaper posted several letters to the editor critical of the column, which termed it "boring" and "hate-filled." The Tribune's "letter of the day" on August 14 also focused on the column, stating it was "disturbing."
Prior to the column's removal from the Tribune website, several gay rights activists and journalists expressed concern to Media Matters about its stereotypical and offensive arguments. Among them, Nadine Smith, founder and CEO of Equality Florida and a former Tribune reporter.
"The first time I read it I thought it was satire," said Smith, who worked at the Tribune from 1989 to 1993. "It's absurd. He's so fixated on this bizarre, paranoid fantasy that he's actually missed the larger story. Businesses are speaking up and being very visible and speaking out quite publicly for equal rights."
Ted Nugent's recent spate of offensive and racist comments that have sparked protests and canceled shows are damaging his image and could well cripple his income if he continues, according to veteran concert promoters and industry journalists.
In a week when two casinos operated by different Native American tribes canceled three separate Nugent shows set for next month and dozens protested a concert in New Jersey, concert touring experts say the National Rifle Association board member and conservative commentator is doing real damage to his money-earning potential.
"If you're going to say something political, you're going to have some backlash, it doesn't matter who you are or what you say," said Larry Magid, a Philadelphia-based promoter who has handled Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, and Bette Midler. "Nugent seems to have taken it to extremes. I don't know that you can blame anyone for not wanting to play him for all of the baggage that he brings."
Magid, who also organized the famed 1985 Live Aid benefit show in Philadelphia, said Nugent was never a huge concert draw, but his declaration earlier this year that President Barack Obama is a "subhuman mongrel" may mark a turning point.
"I don't know if that is frustration at not being a viable act, but it is stupid," Magid said of Nugent. "If you are a musician, you are trying to bring your music, your art to a broad group of people. It is one thing to take a stance, it is another thing when you are talking about the president of the United States.
"For all of the people enamored with him, there are 20 or 30 or 40 times that who are not enamored with him. To me, it's not bright. If I'm a promoter I have to think two or three or four times before I take a shot with this performer."
"No one should be surprised by any of this," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar USA, which tracks concert touring receipts. "It's a free country and Nugent has always had a big mouth. But if he keeps making incendiary statements his future tours may be limited to NRA conventions and Fox News events."
Bongiovanni said the public reaction is not unusual: "Why be surprised if you can't sell tickets to them after you insult people who are gay, animal rights, or gun control advocates, or just in the majority of people who voted for Obama?"
National Public Radio is backing away from a revised job description for its ombudsman that suggested the person in the position should avoid "passing judgment" on any errors in NPR News coverage, calling that listing "a mistake."
Earlier this week, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen highlighted a job listing for the NPR ombudsman/public editor position, which has historically reviewed and critiqued NPR's reporting. The listing asserted the role did not include "passing judgment" or providing "commentary."
In one section it stated, "The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment." Another section added, "In addressing audience complaints about journalistic errors in NPR News coverage, the Ombudsman/Public Editor will gather facts and can interview key news managers. The Ombudsman/Public Editor will then explain any errors without passing judgment."
Citing the concerns of two former NPR ombudsmen, Rosen declared that the outlet had "downgraded the ombudsman position."
Following the criticism, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn issued a statement to Media Matters calling the language a "mistake":
The Ombudsman is a critically important role at NPR and the expectations of the job have not changed. The Ombudsman must be fully independent and fully transparent in order to do their job on behalf of the public. The language in the current job description about not providing commentary or passing judgment is a mistake and we are removing it. I take this position very seriously and am committed to recruiting an outstanding journalist for the job and ensuring he or she has the resources required.
Several NPR member stations had expressed concerns to Media Matters about the apparent reduction in the power of the ombudsman.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who criticized Chelsea Clinton's speaking fees as "unseemly," brings home less than half as much as the former first daughter for her own paid engagements.
American Program Bureau, one of two speaking bureaus that broker speaking appearances for Dowd, said she receives an average of $30,000 per appearance, plus travel expenses. An APB agent who requested anonymity, confirmed Dowd averages at least eight to 12 such appearances per year.
Dowd's other speaking bureau, All-American Speakers, declined to release fee information for Dowd.
This is less than half of the $75,000 Chelsea Clinton receives per event according to a previous New York Times story. That article noted that all of her fees go to the Bill, Hillary, & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, which "works to improve global health, strengthen economies, promote health and wellness, and protect the environment."
Dowd, who has a decades-long history of viciously criticizing President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, took on their daughter this past Sunday in a column that said there was "something unseemly" about the younger Clinton being paid to speak:
Why on earth is she worth that much money? Why, given her dabbling in management consulting, hedge-funding and coattail-riding, is an hour of her time valued at an amount that most Americans her age don't make in a year?
Dowd went on to write that if Clinton "really wants to be altruistic," she should "contribute the money to some independent charity not designed to burnish the Clinton name" or "speak for free."
Could the same be said of Dowd's own work on the paid speaking circuit? She has appeared at college campuses ranging from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to Hofstra University and the University of Rochester in the past. Her paid appearances have also spanned the likes of the Philadelphia Bar Association and Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, N.J.
"We don't pay all of our speakers, but in her case I am sure we did," said Dan Anderson, vice president for university relations at Elon University in Elon, N.C., where Dowd spoke in 2012.
Dowd did not respond to a request for comment seeking to determine whether she donates her speaking fees to charity.