2013 got off to a promising start when perennial conservative huckster Dick Morris was finally fired from Fox News.
But any hope for year free from scandal unraveled as conservative outlets like Fox, and venerable institutions like CBS and CNN, found themselves mired in ethical morasses of their own making.
Media Matters looks back at the year in media ethics:
CBS' 60 Minutes didn't just bungle the reporting of its “exclusive” story about the 2012 terror attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The program also stonewalled when key questions were raised about its report, and failed to make a basic disclosure about its key witness.
In late October the top-rated news program ran a report rehashing old myths about Benghazi, and featuring the supposed “eyewitness” account of the attacks from British security contractor Dylan Davies, who appeared on the show under the pseudonym “Morgan Jones.” Davies' claims included him scaling a 12 foot wall on the side of the diplomatic compound and dispatching a terrorist with his rifle butt. He also told correspondent Lara Logan he had supposedly seen Ambassador Chris Stevens' dead body in a local hospital.
Almost immediately, reporters and media critics -- including Media Matters -- questioned the veracity of the report and its star “witness.” But CBS' initial reaction was to dig in and defend its already problematic reporting. Only after more information surfaced -- this time showing that Davies gave the FBI a different account of the night of the Benghazi attacks than what he told CBS -- did the network finally investigate, pull the report, and apologize to viewers.
As CNN media critic Brian Stelter pointed out of CBS' initial reaction to criticism: “CBS did exactly the wrong thing. They got up against the wall. They got defensive” instead of trying to “figure out what went wrong.”
A CBS internal review later found that Logan's report was “deficient in several respects,” and her “team did not sufficiently vet Davies' account of his own actions and whereabouts that night.” Logan and producer Max McClellan were also put on indefinite leave.
CBS also admitted fault in failing to disclose that Davies' book was published by the CBS-owned Simon & Schuster. The practice of inconsistently disclosing a publisher's corporate ties to 60 Minutes has been a repeat issue for the program throughout the years.
When CNN hired Newt Gingrich to co-host its revived Crossfire program, “the most trusted name in news” knew what it was getting: a partisan who was brought down by “ethics problems” and is still involved with political organizations that are actively raising money. So perhaps it wasn't a surprise that weeks after Gingrich's Crossfire debut, media ethicists were already heavily criticizing CNN for failing basic transparency.
In September, CNN told Media Matters that if Gingrich, who serves as honorary co-chair for the American Legacy PAC, “is helping fund a candidate and that candidate's on the show, or being discussed on the show, of course he'll disclose that. Disclosure is important when it's relevant.” But Media Matters noted later that month that Gingrich failed to make those disclosures when hosting Sen. Rand Paul, and when discussing Sen. Ted Cruz -- both of whom received money from Gingrich's PAC.
The networked subsequently issued a statement “clarifying the policy” to state that such disclosures are not required “since the co-host's political support is obvious by his or her point of view expressed on the program.” CNN's apparent reversal drew an onslaught of criticism from reporters and media writers, including on CNN's Reliable Sources.
Despite the criticism, CNN has still allowed Gingrich to host politicians his PAC has supported, and Gingrich's media company was paid $9,500 in September by the Republican National Committee, a fact he has not divulged on Crossfire.
Be cautious if you receive a promotional email from a conservative pundit.
In July, Fox News contributor and RedState editor Erick Erickson emailed subscribers to his RedState.com email list claiming he's found the “best investment advice I know of, bar none,” in the financial newsletter of analyst Mark Skousen. Yet 12 paragraphs of Erickson's signed endorsement were virtually identical to language used by Ann Coulter in emails four years ago.
Erickson's email sent readers to a page promising a “secret retirement plan” that “can make you America's Next Millionaire!” The page claims that “even regular people with just $10,000 or $20,000” are using this secret plan -- nicknamed the “Romney Retirement Plan” -- to become “instant millionaires.” The long, circuitous video states that by subscribing to Skousen's newsletter (1 year for $99.95), you'll get access to the secret. Skousen's website, like RedState, is owned by Eagle Publishing. Erickson later claimed he didn't “earn a penny” for the email.
Regardless of whether Erickson was paid for the get-rich-quick email, there has certainly been no shortage of conservatives attempting to cash in on their followers through dubious or shady practices. (For an example of how conservative email lists are selling out their subscribers to a disgraced financial firm, go here.) As Salon's Alex Pareene noted, “the conservative movement is an elaborate moneymaking venture. For professional movement conservatives, their audiences and followers are easy marks.”
Fox News was forced to fire contributor Tobin Smith this year for receiving compensation to promote a company's stock, a violation of network policy, following a report by Fox corporate sibling MarketWatch. Media Matters subsequently noted that Smith received compensation and used his Fox credentials to promote numerous other risky company stocks through his website and conservative newsletters.
Another Fox Business analyst, Charles Payne, was also compensated to promote the stocks of at least three companies since joining Fox. The share prices of the companies Payne was paid to tout are now essentially worthless.
Though Fox fired Smith, it did not react publicly to Payne's paid promotions, which occurred prior to 2013. Payne responded to Media Matters by ducking questions and scrubbing his website.
While Fox claimed in 2009 that it “prohibits any on-air talent from endorsing products or serving as a product spokesperson,” that policy appears to be lax if non-existent. In addition to Payne and Smith shilling for company stocks, Fox News contributors Keith Ablow (diet company) and Wayne Rogers (reverse mortgages) have also recently worked as company spokespersons.
Fox is acting as a waiting room for Republicans to collect a paycheck and stay visible while they contemplate runs for office.
Media writer Howard Kurtz (now with Fox) said “Fox News is the go-to channel for most GOP primary voters, and being a host or frequent guest is a terrific platform in a friendly environment.”
In 2013, no fewer than nine Fox News employees were linked with future campaigns for office: Liz Cheney (who has since left to run for office), Geraldo Rivera, Keith Ablow, Scott Brown, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, John Bolton, Ben Carson, and Allen West. Both Rivera and Ablow eventually decided not to run.
Fox candidates have used their airtime to, in the words of Rivera, “hone a message” for a possible campaign. Media ethicists on the other hand have said letting Fox candidates test out their potential messages on-air poses a “clear conflict” for a news outlet.
The Fox candidates aren't new. Former contributors such as Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, John Kasich, Pete Snyder, Mark Sanford, and Angela McGlowan (now back with Fox) left Fox to run for office. This roster also shows the risks of leaving the cozy confines of Fox: though the candidates' time on Fox helped (Santorum once said his employment with Fox has “been big”), it didn't always guarantee a win.
The Wall Street Journal was criticized last year for repeatedly failing to disclose that many of its op-ed writers were also advising the campaign of Mitt Romney. While 2013 didn't have a national election, it still had newspapers' opinion sections failing to disclose relevant ties about its writers.
Among some of the problems:
- The Wall Street Journal has repeatedly published op-ed pieces related to environmental issues without noting that the op-ed's writers were tied to industries affected by environmental regulation.
- The Wall Street Journal and Las Vegas Review-Journal published op-eds from the Employment Policies Institute to push claims about labor issues without noting the group is closely connected to the fast food industry.
- FoxNews.com published an op-ed from Colin Hanna arguing against film industry regulation without disclosing his organization has received money to promote the film industry.
- The New York Times published an op-ed defending cable broadband without noting the writer's group has received money from the cable industry's chief lobbying group.
- USA Today published an op-ed from a group attacking Media Matters for purportedly engaging “in the 21st century's version of book burning” by “target[ing] advertisers on shows such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.” The paper didn't disclose that the group receives financial support from the very media companies that have a business interest in preventing such actions.
Should media outlets cut back on accountability when readers are looking for accuracy?
That's a question surrounding The Washington Post's decision to hire a part-time reader representative to replace its full-time ombudsman position in March.
Media Matters' Joe Strupp reported on the move and concerns from Post veterans over the change. Former Post ombudsman Andy Alexander said eliminating the independent ombudsman would be a “terrible loss for Post readers.” Another former ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, said: "The Post is weakening a great institution and also thereby weakening itself." The Post defended the decision, saying the new position will “hold us all properly accountable.”
NPR's ombudsman noted that when the Post “became one of the first American news organizations to have an ombudsman, it set a precedent that helped build the quality and influence of the Post and all American journalism. When today the Post killed that position and replaced it with what sounds like a customer relations person, it appeared to be setting the opposite precedent of sticking its head in the sand. It eliminated a position that builds audience trust precisely at a time that this fundamental and fickle quality -- trust -- in the Post and all American news media is declining.”