Ethics

Issues ››› Ethics
  • Morning Joe Gets Scoops On Trump’s Transition While Its Hosts Reportedly Advise Him

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    MSNBC Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have reported multiple scoops on President-elect Donald Trump’s transition efforts and potential cabinet selections since the election. The exclusives come as the pair, who often give Trump friendly coverage, have confirmed that they regularly speak directly to Trump and have reportedly been advising him, including on his cabinet selections. These reports raise questions about the journalistic ethics surrounding Morning Joe’s Trump coverage, as well as the extent of the hosts’ relationship with the president-elect.

    Since the election, Scarborough and Brzezinski have frequently cited “sources” when reporting exclusive details about Trump and his transition efforts. On November 22, Brzezinski claimed that “a source with direct knowledge of Donald Trump's thinking” told Morning Joe that Trump would “not pursue any investigations into Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server and the Clinton Foundation” because Trump believes she had “‘been through enough.’” On November 28, Brzezinski reported that “sources” told MSNBC that Trump was “furious” at his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, for publicly criticizing Mitt Romney, a former Trump critic and possible candidate for secretary of state. Scarborough a few minutes later on the show said Trump told him personally he did not want Romney to apologize for his previous criticism. The next day, Scarborough reported that Conway was the “only noise internally, based on all of my sources” within Trump’s transition team, opposing Romney. And on December 6, Brzezinski claimed that “sources familiar with Trump's thinking” told the show that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was “not in serious contention” for the secretary of state position, retired Gen. David Petraeus was “no longer a serious candidate,” and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was also “fading” in contention for the position.*

    Meanwhile, The New York Times reported on November 19 that Trump “often seeks out” advice from Scarborough. And in late November, Brzezinski met Trump’s daughter Ivanka for coffee at Trump Tower. Politico also reported that Scarborough “tells Trump his opinions on Cabinet picks, both in private and on air.” Scarborough, speaking with Politico, confirmed that he and Brzezinski “‘talk to Trump a few times a week,’” claiming that they “‘say the same thing to him on the phone that we say publicly on the show.’” These reports raise the question of whether the hosts are reporting scoops on Trump’s cabinet that they themselves have advised on.

    This apparent arrangement also comes as Scarborough and Brzezinski continue to defend Trump, a pattern they exhibited throughout much of the presidential campaign and for which multiple media figures have criticized them. As Politico noted, the hosts seem to have a “symbiotic relationship” with Trump, where “Scarborough and Brzezinski need the access to Trump and his inner circle to break news, provide analysis and exert influence,” and Trump “needs the pair for their audience.”

    * The piece has been corrected to clarify that Brzezinski said retired Gen. David Petraeus was "no longer a serious candidate" for the secretary of state position. It originally inaccurately quoted her as saying he was "not a serious candidate” for the position.

  • Morning Joe Hosts, After Carrying Water For Trump And Meeting Him Privately, Aghast That Anyone Questions Their Impartiality

    ››› ››› KATIE SULLIVAN

    Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, co-hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, have met privately with Donald Trump while Scarborough is reportedly advising the president-elect, yet both still reject media criticism of their overly positive coverage of the former reality show celebrity. On the November 29 edition of Morning Joe alone, the hosts carried water for President-elect Trump on five separate topics, including criticizing journalists for scrutinizing his extensive conflicts of interest and reporting on Pro-Trump “fake news.”

  • Former Members Of Senate Credentialing Committee Alarmed At Bannon's "Shady" Relationship With Breitbart

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Breitbart.com’s request for permanent Capitol Hill press credentials is sparking concern from former members of the committee that approves those passes, who say Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon’s new White House advisory role could pose a "shady" conflict.

    Politico recently reported that Breitbart, the far-right conservative website headed by Bannon for years, had applied for permanent credentials with the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery, which decides who may receive the coveted credentials.

    The request comes as Bannon, the recent chair/CEO of Breitbart, was named chief strategist and senior counselor for President-elect Donald Trump. (Bannon has been "on leave" from the site since he left to help head Trump's campaign in August.)                 

    The Standing Committee’s policy expressly forbids any news organization with a conflict of interest to receive a credential. This week, Media Matters issued an open letter calling on the committee to reject the credential request "based on Breitbart’s disqualifying inability to demonstrate editorial independence as required" by the committee rules. 

    Given Bannon’s ties to Breitbart, former members of the committee -- which is comprised of Congressional correspondents -- fear it could pose a problem. They requested anonymity due to concerns about retaliation.

    “You would be terribly concerned about conflict of interest and how to guard against this,” said one former committee member. “On the face of it, the question people have is, ‘are we comfortable with the fact that someone in the White House now seems to have potentially this role influencing what appears in a publication?’ You can’t know that until you look at the structure. My first question would be can he reach over any type of firewall in terms of what stories are covered?

    “You have to be editorially independent from anything that’s not a news organization and by virtue of having someone in the White House and having editorial influence over Breitbart, if he did, he would violate the standard.”

     Another former committee member echoed that view.

    “That would be something to be raised by the committee, it won’t be just rubber-stamped for it I assume,” the former member said. “You need to know if there is a clear separation from the ownership. The concern they normally have is if there is a potential for conflict of interest between what the ownership is doing and the reporting.”

    The person added, “If he took a leave of absence, you would have to take his word for it that he would not be interfering, they would have to look at it carefully. I don’t think they would take his word for it. It seems likely they would take a hard look and make sure it is correct.”

    A third former committee member said a Breitbert credential “sounds a little shady.”

    “It sounds like something that if we were on the standing committee, we would have to look at closely,” the correspondent said. “That is the biggest role of the committee, making sure there is that firewall. … The White House and Congress are obviously very closely related, if you are someone who might benefit from what happens on one of those sides and can benefit financially from one of those things it can get really mixed up.”

    Another former committee member said this was the first such conflict to arise in their time in the congressional press corps.

    “I’ve never seen a situation where somebody in the administration had a connection to a news organization that is seeking a credential,” the former member said. “The concern is that if it’s not an independent news organization, the person would be acting as an agent for the administration on the hill. You don’t want someone acting as a lobbyist.”

  • “Nixonian”: Journalists React To Trump’s Declaration That As President, He “Can’t Have A Conflict Of Interest”

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT

    During an on-the-record meeting with The New York Times staff, President-elect Donald Trump declared that there is no legal need for him to free himself of his international business affairs to avoid conflicts of interest, flatly saying that presidents “can’t have a conflict of interest.” Journalists responded to Trump’s declaration by calling it “Nixonian,” referencing former President Richard Nixon’s comment to journalist David Frost that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

    Times reporters live-tweeted the meeting between Trump and newspaper staff, where he was asked about the numerous conflicts of interest he is facing with his business ties and his plans to turn over his businesses to his children while simultaneously involving them in his White House transition. In his replies, Trump said it’s not necessary for him to put his businesses in any kind of trust and that, as president, he “can’t have a conflict of interest” -- echoing an argument made by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani that financial conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the presidency.

    Journalists responded to Trump’s declaration by calling it “Nixonian” in nature, a reference to President Richard Nixon telling David Frost in a May 1977 interview that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal”:

    In fact, legal experts across the political spectrum have warned that presidential conflicts of interest of this type “could violate a crucial constitutional protection against corruption and influence by other governments,” specifically the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution -- “essentially an antibribery rule, which forbids public servants from accepting anything of value from foreign powers without explicit congressional approval.”

  • News Networks Sidelined Trump's Conflicts Of Interest Until His Election

    Blog ››› ››› ROB SAVILLO

    The broadcast networks’ flagship evening news programs failed to inform their viewers about the inherent conflicts of interest a potential Donald Trump presidency would bring in the months leading up to Election Day, and have not given the subject the urgency it deserves in the wake of his election, according to a Media Matters review.

    Between September 14 and Election Day, the networks only aired approximately seven minutes of stories about or at least mentioning a conflict of interest. In the week after the election, they aired approximately 14 minutes -- but only half of that explicitly called the issues “conflicts.”

    Trump has said throughout his campaign and following his election that he intends for his children to run his business empire while he is president. But on September 14, Newsweek reported that if Trump and his family don’t cut ties to the family’s business conglomerate, Trump would “be the most conflicted president in American history, one whose business interests will constantly jeopardize the security of the United States” due to the Trump Organization’s relationships and financial entanglements with foreign interests.” Responding to that story, Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told Media Matters that the only way to avoid serious conflicts of interest would be for Trump and his family to sell all of their holdings in the Trump Organization. Painter also stressed that the issue was a “serious problem” that warrants increased media attention.

    Painter sounded some of the earliest alarms about Trump’s conflicts. Speaking with Mother Jones in June, he explained that the idea of a sitting president holding any debt owed to an entity that the government regulates should disturb the public: “[H]aving a president who owes a lot of money to banks, particularly when it's on negotiable terms -- it puts them at the mercy of the banks and the banks are at the mercy of regulators.”

    The flood of potential and actual conflicts of interest have been made manifest following Trump’s election. A Washington Post investigation recently revealed a sprawling, globe-trotting Trump empire, showing that the president-elect’s real estate, management, and branding companies have business interests in at least 18 countries or territories. The Post also reported over the weekend that foreign diplomats had flocked to an event at the Trump International Hotel, located just a few blocks from the White House, seeking “to curry favor or access with the next president.”

    The New York Times reported that developers of Trump Towers Pune, located in Pune, India, flew to New York last week to meet with the Trumps during the president-elect’s initial stages of his transition to the White House. Pranav R. Bhakta, a consultant who helped Trump establish a foothold in the Indian market five years ago, told the Times, “To say, ‘I have a Trump flat or residence’ -- it’s president-elect branded. It’s that recall value. If they didn’t know Trump before, they definitely know him now.”

    These recent events should have come as no surprise, yet the network news hardly mentioned the conflicts of interest inherent in Trump’s global business ties before or after the election.

    Media Matters looked at ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir, CBS’ Evening News with Scott Pelley, and NBC’s Nightly News with Lester Holt for reports on Trump’s conflicts of interest -- including the Trump Organization’s ties to foreign governments or businesses, Trump promoting his own businesses through the presidency, plans for Trump’s children taking over the Trump Organization through a “blind” trust or attempting to access security clearances, and Trump’s children using their access to the president-elect to promote their own businesses -- starting from Newsweek’s September 14 article.

    From then until Election Day, the networks spent approximately seven minutes on stories about or at least mentioning a conflict of interest. NBC aired a three-minute segment, and ABC aired a three-and-a-half-minute segment. Both were about Trump using his campaign to promote his own businesses; however, neither explicitly pointed to potential upcoming conflicts of interest should Trump win the election. NBC briefly mentioned the Newsweek report in a segment about corruption in the Trump Foundation, and the night before the election, the network again briefly mentioned the conflict of interest of Trump’s business ties for about eight seconds.

    In the week after the election, the networks have devoted more coverage to these conflicts of interest, but it hasn’t been enough. From November 9 to 16, the networks spent approximately 14 minutes on stories about or at least mentioning a conflict of interest, but only half of those explicitly called them conflicts. They spent a total of about seven minutes on Trump’s foreign business ties, six minutes on Trump’s children helping with the president-elect’s transition or vying for security clearances, and two minutes on Ivanka Trump using a photo of herself in Trump’s recent 60 Minutes interview to sell a bracelet that retails for over $10,000.

    Methodology

    Media Matters searched news transcripts from the Nexis database for mentions of any variations of “conflict,” “corrupt,” “organization,” “trust,” “business,” “interest,” “cabinet,” “transition,” or “divest” within the same paragraph as “Trump” for ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir, CBS’ Evening News with Scott Pelley, and NBC’s Nightly News with Lester Holt from September 14 through November 16. We reviewed video to determine length of coverage.

  • It’s Time For MSNBC To Address Reports That Joe Scarborough Is Advising Donald Trump

    Blog ››› ››› JARED HOLT

    MSNBC must address recent reports that President-elect Donald Trump “often seeks out” political advice from network host Joe Scarborough. If true, the reports call into question Morning Joe’s Trump coverage and present an ethical dilemma for the network.

    On November 19, The New York Times reported that Trump “still maintains the routine that sustained him during the campaign,” which includes “often seek[ing] out” advice from Scarborough. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter referenced the Times report on the November 20 edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources, stating that Scarborough "has been giving Trump advice.” Scarborough failed to address the allegations during the November 21 edition of Morning Joe.

    Scarborough has repeatedly attacked those who claimed he was supporting Trump on-air. In November, Scarborough lashed out at the “really disgusting” people who suggested he favored Trump, adding that he doesn’t want viewers to believe “that anybody [on Morning Joe] is rooting for Donald Trump because we’re not.” Similarly, when conservative columnist Bill Kristol called out the Morning Joe hosts for “rewriting history” on the show’s coverage of Trump during a guest appearance in October, Scarborough and his co-host Mika Brzezinski devolved into a screaming match, calling Kristol “bitter,” and claiming he was “practically crying.”

    Despite the hosts’ defense of their Trump coverage, they have repeatedly fawned over Trump and defended him from media criticism following an off-air meeting between Scarborough, Brzezinski, and Trump in September to “rekindle their relationship.” Since that meeting, Scarborough has lashed out at journalists who expressed concern over Trump’s refusal to say if would accept election results, refused to accept that a Trump television ad featured anti-Semitic themes, and denied the assertion that the press carried Trump through his campaign.

    Other media figures have criticized the program’s cozy relationship with Trump throughout the election. Conservative radio host Steve Deace told MSNBC that Scarborough had turned his show into “a Trump super PAC for six months,” and Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik called Scarborough’s relationship with Trump “inappropriate.” And an NBC pollster cited Morning Joe’s Trump coverage as an example of how the media have bolstered, and to an extent, even "created" Trump.

    Trump has also sought advice from other conservative media figures like Fox News’ Sean Hannity. In August, The New York Times reported Hannity had expanded beyond his role as “Trump’s biggest media booster” and “veer[ed] into the role of adviser,“ where he “peppered Mr. Trump, his family members and advisers with suggestions on strategy and messaging.” Like Scarborough, Hannity has repeatedly defended Trump from criticism and been accused of acting as an “arm of the Trump campaign.”

    At the risk of compromising the network’s journalistic integrity, MSNBC must address reports that Scarborough is advising Trump, since Scarborough has shown he will not address them on his own. If reports are accurate, Scarborough should fully disclose his advising role to Trump. To do otherwise would be journalistic malpractice.

  • NY Times Public Editor Says Problem With Paper’s Election Coverage Is It Was Too Mean To Trump Supporters

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    In a strange move that bodes ill for the paper’s future coverage, The New York Times’ public editor devoted her review of the paper’s election work almost entirely to detailing ways in which she thought the paper hadn’t been understanding enough of Donald Trump’s supporters.

    Throughout the column, public editor Liz Spayd detailed how readers were upset about the newspaper’s election work and she quoted several of them to prove the point. She stressed that reader outpouring from “around the country” was extremely high (“five times the normal level”), and that there was a “searing level of dissatisfaction out there with many aspects of the coverage.”  

    But Spayd’s hand-selected readers led inexorably to her point that the Times had not been sufficiently charitable to Trump voters. “Few could deny that if Trump’s more moderate supporters are feeling bruised right now, the blame lies partly with their candidate and his penchant for inflammatory rhetoric,” she wrote. “But the media is at fault too, for turning his remarks into a grim caricature that it applied to those who backed him.” At every turn, the readers with whom Spayd chooses to engage criticize the purported liberalism of the Times’ coverage. The message the public editor sends is clear: the paper should move to the right to quell reader concerns.

    Yet not a single reader whom Spayd chose to include in her post-campaign analysis expressed any concern about the daily’s Clinton coverage. Nor did she feature any complaints that the paper’s coverage of Trump may have been insufficiently rigorous. Instead, criticism from the left of the paper’s general election coverage was entirely absent.

    The omission and complete lack of introspection is also strange simply because the Times’ treatment of Clinton has been the topic of an ongoing media debate, as a wide array of writers have detailed what they viewed as the paper’s patently unfair treatment of the Democratic nominee. Even the Times’ former executive editor, Jill Abramson, agreed that the newspaper gives Clinton “an unfair” level of scrutiny.

    She was hardly alone this campaign, as numerous media observers and readers alike criticized the paper’s treatment of the Democratic nominee, calling the coverage a "biased train wreck" that indicated "a problem covering Hillary Clinton," who was "always going to be presumed guilty of something."

    Yet gazing over all of that commentary and all those detailed complaints, Spayd saw no reason to address progressive criticism of the paper. It really does appear that the Times-wide denial is complete.

    But so what about the Clinton treatment, some might say. What’s done is done and Trump is the pressing media issue moving forward. I agree. But I also see a direct connection between the Times’ unfair and accusatory Clinton coverage, and what appears to be its increasingly passive reporting on President-elect Trump.

    And it stands to reason: If the main lesson the Times newsroom is being taught from the election is that the paper was too tough on Trump, too mean to his supporters, and that readers think the paper’s “liberal” bias is evident, guess what kind of coverage that produces?

    It produces the kind of coverage where, one day after Trump’s attorney announced the newly elected president was settling a huge $25 million consumer fraud lawsuit filed against him (an unheard-of development in American politics), the Times published a mostly-upbeat, front-page Trump piece that portrayed him as “confident,” “focused,” “proud,” and “freewheeling.” (To date, the Times has published exactly one news article about the Trump University fraud settlement.)

    Right below that article on the front page the same day appeared another puff piece, this one an admiring look at Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, described by the Times as a “steadying hand” with “driving confidence” who might serve as a “moderating influence” with Trump. This, just days after Trump appointed a white nationalist as his top advisor.

    Meanwhile, the Times’ response to the kerfuffle that recently broke out when Vice President-elect Mike Pence was booed by audience members while attending “Hamilton” on Broadway was oddly passive and defensive. At least two Times staffers, including one reporter currently covering Trump for the newsroom, seemed to denounce the boos as being disrespectful. And in its news report on the incident, the Times noted Trump tweeted about the booing, but failed to inform readers that Trump’s tweet was completely inaccurate: Cast members were not “very rude” to Pence. (It was audience members who booed, not the performers, who thanked Pence for attending and asked that he work on behalf of all Americans.)

    That’s not to say the Times hasn’t published any worthy news articles during the early stages of the Trump transition. On November 19, the newspaper reported on the morass of looming conflicts for the new president:

    President-elect Donald J. Trump met in the last week in his office at Trump Tower with three Indian business partners who are building a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex south of Mumbai, raising new questions about how he will separate his business dealings from the work of the government once he is in the White House.

    Where did the potentially damaging piece appear? On page 20.

    The Times did follow up two days laterwith a front-page examination of Trump’s pending conflicts. But the question still lingers: Did the newsroom learn the wrong lessons from the 2016 campaign?

  • A $25 Million Settlement Just Tanked Right-Wing Media’s Fraudulent Defense Of Trump University

    ››› ››› JARED HOLT

    President-elect Donald Trump agreed to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits alleging his for-profit business Trump University used aggressive sales tactics and unqualified instructors to scam students. Throughout the lawsuit’s litigation, right-wing news outlets helped shield Trump University from criticism by enabling Trump to lie about the institution and aiding his racist attacks on the judge overseeing the case.

  • Ethics Authorities Raise Corruption Concerns Over Trump’s Children Running His Businesses And Transition

    ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT

    Media are reporting on concerns raised by watchdogs and government-ethics experts that President-elect Donald Trump is creating avenues for corruption by failing to put his business dealings in a true blind trust. Instead, Trump says he will hand over those business dealings to his children -- but his children are also serving on Trump’s White House transition team, where, experts note, they are in a position to choose the people who make regulatory decisions impacting the businesses.

  • CNN’s Final Humiliation: Corey Lewandowski Quits To Work For Trump

    The Network Should Have Fired Him Months Ago

    Blog ››› ››› BEN DIMIERO

    Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manager for President-elect Donald Trump turned professional Trump propagandist for CNN, has resigned from the network amid reports that he is seeking a job in the new administration. His resignation just days after Trump’s win underlines the farcical nature of his employment as a “political commentator” for CNN during the election. And the nature of his exit -- proactively resigning to potentially go back to officially working for Trump rather than being fired by CNN for obvious ethical reasons -- should humiliate the network.

    CNN hired Lewandowski shortly after he was fired by the campaign in June. His hiring was immediately and widely criticized, both due to his history of open hostility toward -- and even physical altercations with -- the press, and the fact that he was likely prevented from criticizing Trump due to a non-disparagement agreement. The New York Times reported Friday that Lewandowski “has been frequently spotted this week at Trump Tower in Manhattan, chatting with senior aides and attending meetings,” and that he is seeking a senior adviser role in the administration and is in consideration for a leadership role with the Republican National Committee.

    CNN president Jeff Zucker repeatedly defended Lewandowski’s hiring, even as it became clear that he was still drawing large “severance” checks from the campaign, advising Trump on strategy, helping to prep him for the debates, and flying on the candidate’s plane while working for the network.

    Zucker’s defense for hiring Lewandowski is that he provided needed pro-Trump balance to CNN’s airwaves while supposedly being able to offer expert information from someone who had been inside the campaign apparatus. But CNN’s airwaves were already filled with Trump apologists, and Lewandowski’s reported non-disclosure agreement essentially prevented him from sharing any unique insight into the campaign. So what CNN viewers got instead was a lot of dishonest shilling on Trump’s behalf -- and given the nature of Trump’s campaign, there was no shortage of scandals for Lewandowski to spin to CNN’s audience.

    When video of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women emerged in October, Lewandowski downplayed the seriousness of the comments by telling CNN viewers that “we’re not electing a Sunday School teacher” and stressing Trump’s leadership ability. (In a separate appearance a few days later, Lewandowski announced that “nobody cares” about Trump’s comments before pivoting to talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails.)

    When women came forward alleging that Trump had assaulted them, Lewandowski cast doubt on the veracity of the claims, suggesting it was suspicious that they had waited until so close to the election to come forward.

    When The New York Times published tax documents suggesting Trump had been able to avoid paying federal income tax for years, Lewandowski tried to obscure the nature of the report by accusing the Times of a “felony” for publishing its article and encouraging the candidate to sue the paper “into oblivion.”

    When a fellow panelist questioned Trump's years-long racist crusade questioning President Obama’s birthplace, Lewandowski questioned (to the horror of dozens of journalists) why Obama hadn’t released his college records, asking, “Did he get in as a U.S. citizen, or was he brought into Harvard University as a citizen who wasn't from this country?”

    There are plenty of other lowlights from Lewandowski's CNN tenure, but you get the idea.

    Lewandowski’s resignation essentially confirms what was already an open secret: he never really stopped working for Trump -- his role just changed. Media Matters had for months been calling for CNN to cut ties with Lewandowski over ethical concerns, but now that he’s resigned, CNN can’t even salvage a small bit of journalistic responsibility over the Lewandowski debacle.

    In effect, CNN just paid Trump’s close ally for five months to spin on Trump’s behalf while auditioning for a job in the Trump administration. The network’s journalists should be embarrassed that their executives had so little regard for CNN’s credibility.