George Will's practice of citing groups funded by a conservative foundation -- without disclosing that he is a paid board member of that foundation -- brought sharp criticism from media ethicists and journalism veterans who say such a lack of disclosure is a breach of journalistic ethics.
“Is there a problem here? Of course,” said Ed Wasserman, Washington and Lee University journalism professor and a Miami Herald columnist. “Even though he is a committed conservative guy with strongly held principles, you still have the right to read his commentary as something that is independently arrived at rather than a reflection of a nexus of relationships and entanglements that he is embedded in.”
Will was elected to the Bradley Foundation board in 2008 and received the Bradley Prize in 2005. A Nov. 19, 2011, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about the Bradley Foundation revealed Will received $250,000 for the Bradley Prize and still receives $43,500 annually as a board member.
Media Matters reviewed Will's columns from mid-2008 to the present and found at least a dozen instances in which he has promoted conservative groups that have received money from the Bradley Foundation without disclosing his connection to the foundation. Those groups include the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society, and National Affairs quarterly.
Among the examples is an April 23, 2009 column citing the Heritage Foundation, in which Will writes: “The [Department of Education] could not suppress the Heritage Foundation's report that 38 percent of members of Congress sent or are sending their children to private schools.”
Media Matters found one column in which Will's Bradley Foundation ties were disclosed. In an August 20, 2009 column, he cited the Institute for Justice, which received Bradley Foundation funding. Will's connection was noted at the end of the piece.
The disclosure initially incorrectly stated that Will was on the board of the MacArthur Foundation, rather than the Bradley Foundation. It said: “The writer is a member of the board of the MacArthur Foundation, which provides some funding for the Institute for Justice.”
The error was later corrected at the end of a subsequent column to read: "George F. Will is a member of the board of the Bradley Foundation and not the MacArthur Foundation, as was disclosed in a recent column on threats to freedom of speech."
Will did not respond to several requests for comment from Media Matters. But he did comment in the Journal Sentinel article on the lack of disclosure.
The article cited Will's failure to disclose his Bradley Foundation connection in columns he wrote supporting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who took office in January 2011 and drew national attention for his efforts to reduce collective bargaining rights of public sector labor unions.
Walker's campaign committee is headed by Michael W. Grebe, president and chief executive of the Bradley Foundation.
Asked if he believed he needed to disclose the conflict, Will told the Journal Sentinel:
“Of course not, or I would have done so,” Will said. “Because I have no connection to Scott Walker. I have a connection to an organization, one member of which is connected to Scott Walker.”
Meanwhile, Will's supervisors at The Washington Post and Washington Post Writers Group responded to requests for comment on his lack of disclosure.
Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt, in an e-mail to Media Matters, dodged the question about what he thought of Will's lack of disclosure, stating:
Joe, is it seriously a surprise to you that George Will quotes experts from conservative think tanks more often than he quotes experts from liberal think tanks?
Alan Shearer, general manager and editorial director of Washington Post Writers Group -- which syndicates Will's column -- took a similar tone, stating in an email:
It is no surprise that George Will would quote individuals whose views are similar to his. It is a leap of logic to conclude that quoting someone affiliated with organizations amounts to using his column “to promote the work of those organizations.” Will's affiliation with the Bradley Foundation is well-known. If he wrote about the Bradley Foundation, we would disclose that.
Media Matters asked Hiatt and Shearer why, if disclosing his ties to the Bradley Foundation was unnecessary, Will did so in one case.
Shearer did not respond, but Hiatt wrote in an email:
Joe, He put that disclosure in that column, so you should ask him the reasoning. It may well be that the Institute for Justice gets a larger share of its funding from Bradley than Heritage, AEI, etc. The survival of the latter big think tanks clearly does not depend on Bradley. But I don't know.
A request for comment from ABC News, where Will is a paid commentator, was not answered.
The finding that Will cited organizations to which the Bradley Foundation had financial links without disclosing his ties brought concerns from several news veterans and journalism ethicists.
Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and former editor of The Miami Herald, called Will's situation, “ethically challenged.”
“His first misstep onto this ethical slope was in accepting an award from the Bradley Foundation, which signaled his alignment with its philosophy,” Fiedler said. “He severely compounded the compromise by agreeing to go on the Bradley Foundation Board, which instantly rendered him a paid proponent of Bradley's positions. A journalist who goes on an organization's payroll is called a P.R. agent.
” Now, the fact is that had Will declined both the award and the board position, he likely would have written the very same columns that are cited in this report. I don't see a way out for him at this point short of resigning from Bradley's board and sending back the money he's been paid. It's disappointing that neither The Washington Post nor ABC News requires Will - or their other commentators - to disclose affiliations with politically active organizations."
Adds John Ensslin, president of the Society of Professional Journalists: “This is a case where a small measure of transparency can go a long way. By disclosing a financial relationship to readers, a columnist can let his readers evaluate whether there's a conflict. I don't think it's necessary to include a disclosure every time one of these groups is mentioned, but generally letting readers know about this relationship seems like the best practice, both in terms of journalism and ethics.”
Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University and former media writer for The New York Times, said Will's history shows "a remarkable indifference to obvious conflicts of interest."
“As I recall he helped prep Ronald Reagan for a debate and then heaped praise on him for his performance," Jones said. “His behavior with Bradley is no different, but I think he argues that people know his politics and that he is wired into all these organizations and that disclosure is not meaningful. He isn't a journalist and plays by other rules. Well, yes he does, and they are rules that I think undermine him with people who care. Most of his readers and admirers, he rightfully thinks, do NOT care.”
Bill Kovach, co-founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and former Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, said in an email: “As a general rule, transparency is always the best rule in journalism. Anytime a journalist has a vested interest (personal or financial) in a subject he or she is writing about the reader/consumer of the information has a right to that interest.”
For Alicia Shepard, a former NPR ombudsman, “It's always better to be transparent. Readers, viewers, etc., don't like to find out things like this after the fact. It seems like it would be easy for George Will to put at the end of his column that he's on the board of the Bradley Foundation. But equally important is to describe the foundation. The name alone doesn't tell readers anything.”
Bob Steele, an ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute and director of the ethics program at DePauw University, found a clear ethical problem.
“I do believe there is an ethical issue at stake regarding George Will's connections with the Bradley Foundation and, by extension of the foundation's funding to other organizations,” Steele said. “Even as an opinion columnist, Will has an obligation to be forthright about his connections to an organization about which he writes, especially given his membership on the Foundation board of directors. He has competing loyalties, and readers deserve to know that and factor it in when judging his work. George Will should disclose that connection when he writes about the Bradley Foundation or other organizations that receive Bradley Foundation funding.”
Sarah Pavlus contributed research to this report