News Ethicists Rip CBS News' “Outrageous” Cantor Ethics Failure

Veteran news ethicists and observers are criticizing CBS News and pollster Frank Luntz for failing to disclose Luntz's financial ties to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor during an appearance on CBS This Morning today to discuss Cantor's surprise primary defeat.

Luntz, a CBS News political analyst, said during the interview that Cantor's defeat was “a great loss not just for Virginia, but for the country.” But at no point did CBS News or Luntz disclose that Luntz's firm, Luntz Global, had received more than $15,000 in consulting fees since 2012 from Cantor's congressional campaign.  

CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair claimed the network had provided adequate disclosure during the broadcast, telling Washington Post reporter Erik Wemple: “His work as a strategist for Republicans was disclosed on the broadcast.”

That explanation doesn't satisfy veteran media critics and reporters. They slammed CBS in interviews with Media Matters, saying that the specific Cantor connection should have been revealed.

“I think it is a classic case of a conflict of interest and CBS was remiss in not knowing it,” said Alex S. Jones, former media writer for The New York Times and director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “If CBS did know it and didn't mention it, then they are bad journalists. If they did know and agreed not to mention it as a condition for getting Luntz on the show, then they were not only bad, but corrupt.”

Andy Alexander, former Washington Post ombudsman, agreed.

“It's Journalism 101. Anything that could impact the credibility of the person being interviewed should be disclosed,” he said in an email about Luntz. “It's a matter of being honest and transparent with your audience.”

Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker, said such non-disclosures are becoming too common: “He should have disclosed he got paid and CBS should have disclosed he got paid,” Auletta said in a phone interview. “This is very common now in television to have political consultants as talking heads.”

David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun television writer, called the lack of disclosure “outrageous.”

“I can't imagine how anyone would think it is ok NOT to clearly explain that conflict of interest,” he said via email. “And CBS wants to sell this show as somehow being the journalistically solid viewing choice.”

For Alicia Shepard, former NPR ombudsman, such action is a form of deception by CBS: “When CBS viewers learn -- and they will -- that Luntz worked for Cantor, they will feel deceived. None of us likes that feeling. CBS loses nothing by acknowledging that Luntz worked for Cantor. Why not be transparent? ”

Kevin Smith, chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, offered a similar thumbs down: “This constant parade of pundits and analysts on network TV with insider interests needs to stop. Clearly, CBS and others are not willing to be forthcoming about these conflicts and share them in a transparent manner with the viewers.”

This isn't the first time CBS has had disclosure problems with Luntz, who has been an analyst for the network since 2012. The GOP strategist appeared on CBS in October and November of that year to discuss Republican vice presidential candidate and Rep. Paul Ryan without disclosing Luntz Global had received money from Ryan's congressional campaign.