Washington Times Continues Unethical Relationship With National Rifle Association
After originally excluding mention of opinion editor David Keene's ongoing relationship with the National Rifle Association in his most recent piece for the paper, the Washington Times quietly added the disclosure after being contacted by Media Matters.
In a September 29 commentary, Keene wrote about the fight over gun legislation in Colorado, echoing the NRA's own messaging in the state. Keene, a former NRA president and current board member, is, according to the Times' own standards, “free to write about the NRA in his personal weekly column as long as he discloses to the reader in that column his continuing role with the organization.” But his ongoing relationship with the gun group was originally missing from the column.
At the bottom of the original commentary, which appeared online and was the top-billed opinion piece in the print edition of the conservative paper, the following note was appended: “David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.”
Media Matters contacted Times editor John Solomon to ask about the omission, only hearing back after the column had been updated to read: “David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times. He is a former president and current board member of the National Rifle Association.” (Solomon responded that the version he was viewing “has his role as current board member.”)
Keene became the Times opinion editor in July 2013 after serving as NRA president between 2011 and 2013. According to the NRA, Keene has served on the group's board of directors since 2000.
After Keene described participating in the crafting of the NRA's 2014 midterm election strategy in a February 2014 interview with The Washington Examiner, Media Matters investigative reporter Joe Strupp asked Solomon whether Keene's continuing role with the NRA created a conflict of interest on the Times' opinion page.
While acknowledging Keene's ongoing NRA role, Solomon said, “Our ethics rules allow an employee in special circumstances to hold an outside position, if it is pre-approved and the appropriate ethical steps are followed. That's the case with David Keene and his membership on the board of the NRA. We knew when we asked David to be our opinion editor that he would continue on the NRA board. We also knew that his role with the NRA was publicly and extensively known.”
Among the “set of rules” that Keene is supposed to follow, Solomon said, “He is free to write about the NRA in his personal weekly column as long as he discloses to the reader in that column his continuing role with the organization.”
In his September 29 column, Keene described how he traveled to Denver in 2013 in his capacity as NRA president to urge Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper not to back gun safety measures being considered in the state legislature in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the July 2012 movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado.
Ultimately, Hickenlooper enacted legislation that expanded background checks on gun sales and limited high-capacity ammunition magazines, and in doing so made himself one of the NRA's primary targets for the 2014 midterm elections.
Keene adopted the NRA's line of attack in his Times piece in attempting to link Hickenlooper to former New York City mayor and current gun safety advocate Michael Bloomberg, who supported the legislative gun safety efforts in Colorado.
Keene wrote in the Times that Bloomberg convinced Hickenlooper to join him “in a war on the Second Amendment,” and that gun safety legislation subsequently signed into law “ignited a political wildfire in the state.” He added, “The wildfire the governor started with help from Mr. Obama and Mr. Bloomberg is still burning, hotter than ever. Recently, polling data began showing that the Republican candidates for both offices were beginning to pull ahead.”
According to The Hill, the NRA's 2014 election spending “includes a heavy focus on Colorado.” The NRA recently launched an anti-Bloomberg campaign, which is largely focused on Colorado. Though Bloomberg himself is not a candidate for any office in 2014, on August 19 the NRA launched an advertisement that falsely claimed Bloomberg wants to “ban ... your guns,” and argued that Bloomberg had made dismissive comments about rural Colorado. According to an NRA press release, the ad “debuts with an initial six-figure ad buy on cable television nationwide and on broadcast stations in Colorado.” On September 29, the same day Keene's column ran, the NRA released another ad in which a Colorado crime victim says that Bloomberg “wants to take away my gun rights for self-defense while he surrounds himself with armed guards.”
The NRA has also endorsed Hickenlooper's opponent, former congressman Bob Beauprez. In its press release announcing the endorsement, the NRA wrote, “Incumbent Governor John Hickenlooper betrayed Colorado voters and values when he chose to support former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's gun control agenda.”
The September 29 print edition of the Times included a large pull-out ad for the NRA. Washington Post media reporter Erik Wemple previously questioned “a special pullout” purchased by the NRA in the August 27 edition of the Times that featured reprints of Times articles about gun issues.
In noting the pro-gun slant of the articles reproduced for the NRA ad, Wemple asked Solomon whether such advertising could make Times reporters “inclined to tilt their stories” in favor of the NRA:
Read through those stories, and you'll see why the NRA couldn't possibly have an objection to the adjacencies.
Though Solomon says the stories piled up in the Washington Times archive in the course of normal journalistic business, isn't there a risk here? Once reporters see how the paper monetizes their work via pro-gun advertisers, won't they be inclined to tilt their stories in that direction? No again, says Solomon: “Writers never know, and it's no different than tomorrow waking up and seeing a Boeing ad in The Washington Post and having a defense story in the newspaper.”