The Washington Times has made a special arrangement with former National Rifle Association president David Keene that allows the pro-gun advocate to serve as the paper's opinion editor, but still apparently be a spokesman for the gun lobby and serve as one of its top leaders.
The unusual arrangement is raising concerns among journalistic ethicists, one of whom accused Keene of "passing yourself off as a journalist."
When Keene was named opinion editor of the Times in July 2013, the Times stressed that he would have a leading role at the paper, stating he would "oversee the newspaper's editorial page, commentary section and online opinion strategy." Times editor-in-chief John Solomon praised Keene's ability to "craft... fresh policy ideas" and "inspire a new generation of conservatives to find their voice, embrace innovation and reach consensus."
But the story announcing Keene's appointment made no mention that he would apparently be continuing to serve as a leader and spokesman for the NRA.
Keene, who served as president of the NRA from 2011 to 2013 after nearly three decades as chairman of the American Conservative Union, remains a member of the NRA's board of directors. His job at the Times has not prevented him from being quoted in the media promoting NRA positions.
For example, a January 21, 2014, article in The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA, about a prominent NRA-managed gun show quoted Keene defending such shows and gun rights. For a February 5 story in The Washington Examiner, Keene described the NRA's internal strategy for participating in the 2014 elections, suggesting that the Times editor is still playing a key role in such deliberations.
Solomon, the Times editor, addressed the conflict of interest Keene may face between his newspaper duties and his role with the NRA in an email to Media Matters. He stated that the Times had agreed to Keene wearing both hats, but with some restrictions.
"Our ethics rules allow an employee in special circumstances to hold an outside position, if it is pre-approved and the appropriate ethical steps are followed," Solomon wrote. "That's the case with David Keene and his membership on the board of the NRA. We knew when we asked David to be our opinion editor that he would continue on the NRA board. We also knew that his role with the NRA was publicly and extensively known."
Solomon went on to explain that he and Keene had "worked out a set of rules for him related to the NRA," adding that, "David recuses himself from editing any pieces in his department that are focused on the NRA. He is free to write about the NRA in his personal weekly column as long as he discloses to the reader in that column his continuing role with the organization."
A recent Keene column about the gun manufacturer Beretta included a disclaimer at the end that stated, "David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times and former president of the National Rifle Association, where he continues to serve on the board." The paper's editorial board has regularly weighed in on firearms policy issues during his tenure.
Keene's dual role presents an ethical quandary even with those restrictions, observers said.
"My question to Mr. Keene and the Times is a simple one -- who do you serve?" Kevin Smith, chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, asked in an email. "Do you serve the NRA and its constituents or do you serve the readers of the Times? It's straightforward. Because if you believe your professional and ethical obligation is to promote the agenda of the NRA, then you have no business as an editorial page editor because you are a spokesperson passing yourself off as a journalist."
He also accused the Times of hiring "someone with apparent conflicts of interest and then establish[ing] an entire set of rules for that person so as to not create ethical issues"
Kelly McBride, ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute, said the column disclosure is the right move, but added that, "even if he recuses himself, he can still have a significant influence on the editorial board." She later noted, "The Washington Times doesn't even pretend to be independent or middle of the road or neutral on most issues."
Solomon, who had served as Times editor earlier in 2008 and 2009, returned to the paper in July 2013. In a brief phone interview Wednesday, he said Keene was chosen, even with his unusual NRA link, because Solomon believed he was among the few who could manage the job.
"I don't think there are very many editorial page editors that can do what David Keene has already done for us and what he's going to do for us," Solomon claimed. "He has proven to be a skilled leader and a thought leader who looks for consensus, not shrillness."
Editorials that have run on Keene's purportedly thoughtful, consensus-based opinion page have criticized "militant homosexual activists" for opposing employer discrimination based on sexual orientation and termed climate change a "scam." During Keene's tenure, Times columnists have claimed that "Liberalism is responsible for more deaths than Nazism or Soviet communism," described Hillary Clinton as "getting past her sell-by date," and asserted that "revolutionary wars have been fought over less" than Obamacare.
Keene has not responded to requests for comment.