Media Ethicists Savage Wash. Post's “Troubling” And “Dishonest” Disclosure Standard For Writer/Lobbyist

The Washington Post claims that broadly disclosing that one of its opinion writers is a Republican lobbyist is sufficient even when he is advocating for positions that specifically benefit his firm's unmentioned clients, a standard media critics say is “troubling” and “dishonest.”

Ed Rogers writes conservative commentary for the Post's PostPartisan blog. Like many conservative columnists, he regularly criticizes environmental and energy regulations and the environmentalists who support them.

But unlike those other columnists, Rogers has a massive conflict of interest: he is chairman of the lobbying firm BGR Group, whose clients benefit from the positions he espouses. While the Post discloses his position with the firm in the bio appended to his posts, it does not reveal BGR's specific clients and conflicts, even when they directly overlap with the subject matter of Rogers' writing.

After Media Matters documented how Rogers' firm received more than $1.6 million last year from energy and transportation clients that benefit from positions he espoused in his columns, a Post spokesperson defended the practice, telling Media Matters via email, “His full-time lobbying job is in his bio on every single piece he writes.” (Media Matters noted this in our original post on the matter.)

Asked again why specific disclosures are not provided for pieces that support issues favorable to a certain client, the spokesperson did not respond. Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt did not respond to requests for comment.

The Post's standard requires readers to search federal lobbying records to research if Rogers has clients that might be impacted by his commentary rather than proactively divulging the information.

Media ethicists panned this policy and urged the paper to do more.

“The burden is on The Washington Post,” said Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker. He singled out Media Matters' report that Rogers had advocated building the Keystone XL pipeline without the Post disclosing that his firm represents Caterpillar, Inc., which would financially benefit from its construction. “If he is going to write about utilities or Keystone and he has clients with a stake in that, the Post should say that.”

“It fits a pattern that I find troubling,” he added. “Which is that in the television world and in this world, it is cheap to have partisans on the air or write blog posts but when you have on someone talking about say Mitt Romney, does the viewer know that that person has a relationship with Romney? And the same thing here. Does the reader know that Rogers has clients that would benefit from Keystone, so therefore the issue becomes transparency.”

Kevin Smith, former ethics committee chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, agreed.

“It's the same scenario repeated time and time again,” he said. “When the Washington Post can't present a complete accounting of their writers' associations it goes beyond head scratching and speaks to dishonesty with their readers.”

Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, took it a step further, declaring that the Post is effectively allowing Rogers to use the paper to provide a public relations service to his firm's clients.

“Let's face it, someone else is paying him to write that column,” said Wasserman. “Describing him as a lobbyist could just look like he is an insider. The point here is that without a specific disclosure that he has a horse to back in this, the blanket description of him as a lobbyist doesn't help."

Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University and former editor of The Miami Herald, agreed that the Post is to blame more than Rogers.

“We can chide the Washington Post for not providing readers with a complete report on Rogers' business interests so the reader can decide whether an ethical compromise exists,” he said. “Such a report would provide that proverbial grain of salt to digest along with his columns.”

Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute and a media ethicist, said identifying Rogers as a lobbyist is a good step, but noted, “What they would need to consider is an additional disclosure that would be unique to each piece that he writes. These are the very specific conflicts of interest that he has.”