2014: The Year In Conservative Media Ethics

In 2014, conservative media outlets and personalities routinely crossed ethical boundaries. Media Matters looks back at some of the worst media scandals of the year.

Scott Brown, Fox's Favorite On-Again, Off-Again Candidate/Contributor

The ethical mess that was Fox News in 2014 is perhaps best embodied by Scott Brown, the former senator turned Fox News contributor turned Senate candidate (again) turned Fox News contributor (again).

During his original run for the Senate in 2009 and early 2010, Brown could reliably count on Fox News for fawning coverage -- including hosts playing on-air with a shirtless Scott Brown “action figure.”

After Brown lost his 2012 re-election bid to Elizabeth Warren (despite Fox's best efforts to smear Warren), the network quickly hired him as a contributor, celebrating the “out of the box thinking” Brown would bring to the channel. Within weeks of his hiring, it was obvious that Brown and Fox were teaming up to help set Brown up for the next act of his political career.

During his appearances in 2013, Brown was repeatedly asked about his potential candidacy for New Hampshire's U.S. Senate seat, afforded an opportunity to opine on a range of potential campaign issues, and given a chance to inoculate himself against the inevitable carpetbagger criticism he would face in trying to run for office in New Hampshire after previously serving as a U.S. senator representing Massachusetts.

In 2014, Brown seemed to carefully delay formal declaration of his candidacy in order to avoid being suspended by Fox News. The network, which eventually cut ties with him in March, gave Brown a platform to attack his eventual opponent, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and continue to hone his messaging to Fox's massive audience.

Fox's attempts to get Brown back into the Senate didn't end with his contract. The network produced and aired a documentary featuring Bret Baier, its chief news anchor, called Live Free or Die: Obamacare in New Hampshire. Brown's team found it so favorable that it repeatedly screened it for voters in the state, including in an event hosted at their campaign headquarters.

Fox News helpfully re-aired the special both nights on the weekend before the election, but it wasn't enough to help carry Brown across the finish line, as he lost his Senate bid.

Two weeks later, Fox News hired him back.

Mike Huckabee And Ben Carson Use Fox To Bolster Possible Presidential Runs

Scott Brown wasn't the only Fox News employee to benefit from the network's lax stance towards employees considering runs for political office. In 2014, Fox News host Mike Huckabee and former contributor Ben Carson both used their platforms at the network to help stoke the fires of potential 2016 presidential runs.

Fox News was largely responsible for Carson's transformation from a pediatric neurosurgeon into a political bombthrower, helping to elevate Carson's political profile after he delivered a speech attacking President Obama at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. After that appearance, Fox personalities immediately got to work telling viewers that Carson should run for president. (The day after Carson's Prayer Breakfast speech, Sean Hannity prodded Carson on whether he would run for president and told him, “I would vote for you in a heartbeat.”)

Many of Carson's 2014 appearances revolved around whether he would eventually throw his hat in the ring for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Fox News finally ended his contract with the network after Carson announced the release of a 40-minute biographical ad. (Carson is still listed on the masthead as the founding publisher of the Washington Times digital magazine American Currentsee and has a column with Creators Syndicate, which also appears in the Times.)

While Carson was booted from Fox, his former colleague Mike Huckabee continues to benefit from the network's megaphone, despite clear evidence he is also strongly considering a presidential run.

Huckabee, who last walked the employee/candidate tightrope in the run-up to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination has, among other things, reportedly been scheduling campaign planning meetings and courting donors and GOP insiders. After the Washington Post reported on the many concrete steps Huckabee was taking towards mounting a run -- and highlighting the balancing act he and his team were trying to strike in order to avoid losing his Fox News contract -- the network announced it was “evaluating his status” at the network. (Huckabee and his allies have also repeatedly cited his role at Fox with helping keep him in front of voters.)

A month later, and the network hasn't provided any updates. In the meantime, Huckabee is happy to use his Fox News show to aid a potential run. For example, on the November 22 edition of Huckabee, he hosted GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson's lobbyist to rail against the evils of online gambling. Adelson is a casino magnate with enough money to basically single-handedly bankroll a primary candidate (he donated millions to a super PAC that supported Newt Gingrich in 2012). Likely not coincidentally, the Washington Post recently described a ban on internet gambling as “the item on top of Adelson's wish list.”

Fox News also continues to employ John Bolton, who has reportedly been considering a 2016 run.

Frank Luntz's Tangled Web Of Conflicts Of Interest

Republican consultant Frank Luntz's myriad conflicts of interest have become a problem for the media outlets that employ him.

Luntz is the founder and CEO of Luntz Global, which consults with numerous Republicans and “businesses from virtually every major global industry.” He's also an analyst for CBS News, Fox News, and Fox Sports 1, where he's pushed his business interests.

In June, Luntz appeared on CBS This Morning to analyze House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's Republican primary loss to Dave Brat. An upset Luntz said the election result was “a great loss not just for Virginia, but for the country.” But neither CBS News nor Luntz disclosed that Cantor paid Luntz's firm for consulting. Media observers criticized the “outrageous” episode as “a classic case of a conflict of interest.” Both CBS and Luntz have defended the disclosure failure by claiming that identifying him as a “Republican” suffices. Luntz also took to the New York Times op-ed page to write about Cantor's loss; their connection once again was not disclosed. 

In September, Luntz appeared on Fox Sports 1 to praise NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's “widely panned” press conference on domestic violence. Luntz called Goodell's presentation “language perfection.” Deadspin reported that Luntz “did mention getting work from the league ... Alas, the source close to Luntz tells us that disclosure was nowhere near full. The way the associate describes things, Luntz wasn't confessing his own bias so much as misleading the audience by downplaying his personal role in shaping Goodell's words, which, per our source, are apparently far from 'language perfection.'”

In December, Mother Jones reported on Luntz's financial connections to billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. Luntz has reportedly provided the Kochs with messaging advice and “popped up in at least two conference calls hosted by top Koch operatives with wealthy donors.” Luntz has offered effusive praise on-air of Koch-backed groups' advertising efforts without disclosing his connections.

Conservatives Scam Their Followers With Shady Email Pitches

This year, conservative media have continued to scam their followers by taking advertising dollars to send emails urging the purchase of shady and questionable products.

Conservative media such as Erick Erickson's RedState, Dick Morris, Newsmax, Townhall, and Human Events have pushed paid promotions for dubious marijuana stocks. In one instance, a promoted stock had its trading temporarily halted and was part of an FBI-investigated pump-and-dump scheme. In another, fine print acknowledged the promoters had “a direct conflict of interest” that would “negatively” affect “your shares.”

Fox News contributor Scott Brown was forced to end his financial relationship with Newsmax, which managed his email list, after he sent a sponsored email to his list touting dubious Alzheimer's disease cures from huckster Dr. Russell Blaylock. Brown wasn't alone: Fox News colleague Mike Huckabee, National Review, Christian Broadcasting Network, Dick Morris, and Herman Cain also sent emails touting such cures. Blaylock's medical claims, as The Boston Globe and Huffington Post noted, are based in “total conspiracy theory” and junk science.

Subscribers to the email list of CNN host Newt Gingrich had their inboxes inundated with bizarre and conspiratorial emails. A Media Matters report this year examined his mailings and found emails touting supposed insider information about cancer “cures,” the Illuminati, “Obama's 'Secret Mistress,'” a “weird” Social Security “trick,” and Fort Knox being “empty.”

Mike Huckabee has sent sponsored emails touting the stock of Gray Fox Petroleum (GFOX) from an analyst so unethical he was fired by Fox News. GFOX's price has since tanked and is now trading at a near 52-week low.

Conservatives seem unconcerned about ripping off their fans. When asked by Media Matters about his dubious sponsored emails, Huckabee denied responsibility, saying “You are supposed to read the disclosure and the disclaimer that is a part of the messages. You know, we are simply the conduit to send messages, these are sponsored and I can't always vouch for the veracity.” 

George Will's Many Ethical Lapses 

George Will, Media Matters' 2014 Misinformer of the Year, routinely crossed ethical lines in his media commentary during the past 12 months. 

In August, Politico reported that Will had attended a summit for the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP). Will had previously attended the gathering at least twice in recent years (including being honored with an award in 2010). According to Politico, Will was part of an “exclusive group of major donors and VIPs” at the event that “dined privately” with Republican politicians like Mike Pence and Rand Paul. (Will, AFP, and Will's syndicator all refused to tell Media Matters whether Will had been compensated for his appearance.)

Will regularly used his syndicated column to promote Koch-favored candidates and issues without disclosing his connections to the Koch brothers. Shortly after the Will/AFP story emerged, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) announced an overhaul of its Code of Ethics. Outgoing SPJ ethics chair Kevin Smith cited Will's relationship with AFP as one of “the most noted examples” of recent disclosure failures by journalists.

But Will was undeterred, using his Washington Post column a few weeks later to promote Joni Ernst, then an Iowa Senate candidate who had received millions in support from AFP and other Koch-affiliated groups.

In late July, Will gave the keynote address at lobbying group National Retail Federation's Retail Advocates Summit. A few weeks later, Will published a column lamenting the “distracting crusade against the minor and sensible business practice called 'inversion,'” adding that a “sensible corporate tax rate would be zero.” The NRF summit listed “lower business tax rates” as one of its “key issues,” and the group had previously pointed to inversions as evidence the U.S. needs to reform its tax policy.

In December, Erik Wemple, Will's colleague at the Post, highlighted what he saw as Will's “out-and-out conflict of interest.” Will penned a column touting the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty's fight against increased oversight of Wisconsin's private voucher schools. Will did not disclose that he sits on the board of directors for Wisconsin's Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has repeatedly given money to the institute.

Will reportedly told Wemple that there would have been no benefit to disclosing his connection, writing in part, “I see no reason -- no service to readers -- to disclose my several degrees of separation from the program: My tenuous connection has no bearing on what I think about what they do. There comes a point when disclosure of this and that becomes clutter, leaving readers to wonder what the disclosed information has to do with anything.”