60 Minutes, Gingrich Conflicts Helped Spark Major Journalism Group's Ethics Code Overhaul

George Will's Lack Of Disclosure Cited As “Noted Example” Of Recent Transparency Failure

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?”

Smith said Washington Post columnist George Will attending a private VIP dinner hosted by the Koch-backed conservative group Americans for Prosperity after spending months using his columns to champion the candidates and ideas favored by the Koch brothers and refusing to disclose whether his participation was paid was one of the “most noted examples” of recent transparency failures.

“I think you are seeing it more and more in magazines, news stories and younger reporters are taking their lessons from this,” Smith added.

Dave Cuillier, outgoing SPJ president and director of the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona, told Media Matters tighter transparency rules are long overdue.

“I think everyone's talking about how media need to be more transparent about how they do things. That's more important these days, particularly when it's hard for people to tell what a media organization's philosophy might be,” Cuillier said. “Who's funding them? What their political stance might be if they have one. Who they represent.”

He later added, “being secret and hiding something is cowardly.”

Smith stressed the best way to avoid a transparency problem is not to engage in a conflict in the first place. He also said that with more news outlets owned by large entities with many divisions and potential areas of conflict, the problem is only getting worse.

“You should avoid conflicts of interest, that is the best way,” he said. “One of the things we added to this is something we've gotten to talk about, that is we do not cave in to pressure to alter coverage. We have lots of people calling our ethics hotline and saying they have internal pressure.”

CBS, CNN, and The Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates George Will, did not respond to requests for comment.