Veteran journalists and media ethicists -- including a former CBS News Washington bureau chief -- are criticizing CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson for accepting an award from Accuracy in Media, a conservative group with a long history of promoting anti-gay views and conspiracy theories.
Attkisson is scheduled to accept the award in person Thursday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.
Several longtime news experts contend Attkisson is hurting her own credibility and that of CBS by participating in the event.
“If you go out and you've received an award from any organization with an agenda, then any reader of your work or viewer of your work has a right to question your impartiality or your fairness,” Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker, told Media Matters in an interview. “I don't think journalists should accept awards from either right-wing or left-wing, conservative or liberal organizations, or from any other organized group that has an agenda. We're not supposed to have an agenda. By accepting those awards or appearing, you are raising questions about your own dispassion. We have enough of those questions already about journalists.”
Ed Fouhy, a former long-time CBS News producer and one-time Washington bureau chief for the network, called Attkisson a “pawn.”
“Sharyl Attkisson is making a mistake in accepting an award from A.I.M. By doing so she becomes just another pawn in the ideological chess games being played with such intensity in Washington,” Fouhy stated. “Her acceptance helps to legitimize A.I.M., a fringe group, whose sole agenda is and has been for many years, to undermine the credibility of the mainstream media, fueled by the donations of millionaire conspiracy theorists.”
Fouhy, also a former CBS News vice president, then noted A.I.M's past efforts against the network dating back many years:
“Reed Irvine, founder of A.I.M., and his political heirs have long made CBS News a special target in their fevered attempts to propound the myth of the liberal media. Going back to Watergate days, A.I.M. has relentlessly tried to intimidate and harass CBS News journalists. Ms. Attkisson may not be aware of that history but she should know that accepting awards from groups with political agendas, whether of the right or the left, is a bad idea.”
Robert Steele, journalism ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute, calls Attkisson's move an “integrity risk.”
“While it's unclear to me as to the specific role Sharyl Attkisson will play as a speaker at the Reed Irvine Awards event, there is an ethical pressure point in her participation in a conference conducted by an organization that reflects political ideology,” he wrote in an e-mail, later adding, “Sharyl Attkisson and CBS News run an integrity risk with her active participation in this awards ceremony and the conference.”
Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University and former media writer for The New York Times, said CBS News and Attkisson should explain such a decision:
“I think it is entirely legitimate to put these questions to CBS News. I would ask if FAIR [Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting] gives such awards? Does Media Matters? Is that appropriate? I think journalism which is disguised advocacy isn't what I admire, on either side of the political equation.”
Attkisson and CBS News did not respond to several requests for comment. But in a statement to Politico, CBS News said:
CBS News journalists are regularly honored by a broad spectrum of organizations for their outstanding original reporting.
But for some observers, such as Marty Steffens -- former San Francisco Examiner editor and a journalism professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism -- damage can be done to the CBS brand.
“It does damage the brand to accept an award from a group that seeks to influence the news,” Steffens said in an e-mail. “Many such organizations out there seek to 'sway' reporters through contests and awards. Accepting in person ... is never a good idea. That is to say, I don't know the specifics here... but generally speaking is not a good idea.”
Ed Chen, former Bloomberg reporter and past president of the White House Correspondents Association, added:
“A group can dish out all the journalism awards it wants, no matter what its bias. But accepting such awards is another thing.”
Pam Fine, journalism professor at the University of Kansas and former managing editor for The Indianapolis Star, said reporters should choose the awards they acknowledge carefully.
“I believe the best policy for journalists is to accept awards from industry-recognized journalism organizations that are non partisan. These include universities such as Columbia which administers the Pulitzer Prizes, Georgia which administers the Peabody Awards and associations such as the American Society of News Editors and the Radio Television Digital News Association.
”I think journalists who accept awards from partisan groups jeopardize their credibility with folks on the other side of the equation and should think carefully about their own credibility and that of their news organizations before accepting such awards."
Charles Davis, associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, agreed.
“I don't think that journalists should ever accept awards or any recognition from advocacy groups. At the heart of journalism lies independence,” Davis said. “I'm not going to ever applaud a journalist for accepting an award that essentially recognizes the fact that the advocacy group likes what they reported. There are a lot of advocacy groups that hand these things over and I think that journalists should shy away from them. These are partisan advocates.”
Marvin Kalb, former host of Meet the Press and a 30-year television journalist, had a simple option for Attkisson:
“If I were in Ms. Attkisson's shoes, I'd thank CPAC but be too busy to show up to receive the award. Not all awards are equal.”