Media Ethicists Criticize Morris, The Hill For Disclosure Failures

Dick Morris's failure to disclose his financial ties to political entities he writes about for The Hill brought sharp criticism from journalism veterans and news ethicists, one of whom accused the Fox News analyst of breaking an “ethical commandment.”

The top editor of The Hill, meanwhile, declined to admit that the newspaper or the columnist had done anything wrong, even as media critics called out the paper's failure to police Morris's column.

In a statement to Media Matters, Hugo Gurdon, the editor-in-chief of The Hill, said:

Our comment pages publish opinion pieces from people on the left and the right who are active in partisan politics. We're confident that our readers know this, but we will continue to make additional disclosures where we think this is necessary.

Asked to elaborate further on Morris's specific actions and whether the paper would subject his work to greater scrutiny in the future, editors at The Hill did not respond.

At issue are several instances identified by Media Matters in which Morris, a well-known conservative political consultant, wrote columns for The Hill, but failed to disclose his financial ties to some subjects of the columns.

In one column earlier this month, Morris attacked “RINO Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.)” for supporting the Law of the Sea Treaty.

The column did not disclose that Morris had headlined a September 2011 fundraiser for Lugar's Republican primary opponent, Richard Mourdock. The Mourdock campaign had also rented Morris's email list in July 2011 for a donation solicitation, which featured an appeal from Morris.

Morris's practice brought criticism from Howard Kurtz on his CNN Reliable Sources program Sunday.

After reading a comment from Gurdon in which the Hill editor said that the paper's readers “are being kept well-informed” about their columnists' potential conflicts of interest, Kurtz commented that those readers "should be kept a little more well-informed."

Several journalism veterans and observers offered a harsh criticism of both Morris and The Hill for the lack of disclosure identified in several Morris columns.

“I do not think there is any question that there should have been disclosure -- especially with someone as ethically challenged as Morris,” said David Zurawik, TV writer for the Baltimore Sun. Responding to the comment Gurdon gave to Kurtz, Zurawik added: “Given his history, I would not expect Morris to disclose. But I would expect more from The Hill. And I have to say I am surprised and dismayed by the editor's high-handed answer.”

Tim McGuire, former editor of The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, also took issue with Gurdon's comment to Kurtz, warning that editors need to take into account what their readers might not know about a columnist.

"The Hill's response assumes everyone reading their material is in the Beltway. It's the rankest of conflicts for Morris to comment on political races in which he has a financial interest. In this day and age of countless entanglements transparency is really the only solution. Disclosure should be constant, total and unambiguous."

Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker, also criticized both Morris and the paper, stating in an e-mail: “The ethical issue is a no-brainer: The Hill should have disclosed that its columnist had horses in races he was writing about. But the larger burden of blame should fall on Dick Morris, who either should have disclosed his interest, or refrained from writing on those subjects.”

Andy Alexander, former ombudsman for The Washington Post, said such a “hidden agenda” can hurt credibility.

“Obviously, I tend toward maximum disclosure. Hidden agendas - or even the appearance of hidden agendas - can badly damage credibility,” he told Media Matters. “When financial connections of these sorts are revealed for a single columnist, there can be an erosion of audience confidence for the entire news product. In situations like the ones involving Morris, there should have been transparency.”

Edward Wasserman, a Miami Herald columnist and journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee University, said The Hill should have done more checking on Morris's financial connections.

“My question is this: Did The Hill even know? Before a publication can decide what disclosures it might owe its readers, it must require disclosures from its contributors,” Wasserman stated. “This isn't difficult. They must ask Dick Morris, or anybody else for that matter, first, whether he has any business dealings or outside obligations to the subjects of his columns that might prompt a reasonable reader to question his ability to write about them fairly and independently, and second, whether those ties specifically obligate him to write pieces such as the one he was submitting.”