The Washington Post's Erik Wemple*, who writes a reported opinion blog on the media, criticized Post colleague George F. Will for praising a conservative advocacy group without disclosing his “out-and-out conflict of interest.”
Will wrote a November 19 column endorsing the efforts of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), which is fighting against increased Department of Justice oversight of private voucher schools in Wisconsin.
But as Wemple notes, the piece omitted “Will's connection to WILL.” The Post columnist is a member of the board of directors at Wisconsin's Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a nonprofit which granted WILL $500,000 in 2011, 2012, and 2013. The foundation states that board members are responsible for grant making decisions. Wemple correctly summarized Will's ethical lapse:
Here, Will touted an outlet funded generously by a group he helps to lead. And thanks to the columnist's kind words, WILL may have an easier time finding funders outside of the Bradley Foundation. All very cozy, synergistic and, as media critics might say, an out-and-out conflict of interest -- an offense of which Will has been accused before.
Will defended his lack of disclosure to Wemple, claiming, in part, that “I see no reason -- no service to readers -- to disclose my several degrees of separation from the program: My tenuous connection has no bearing on what I think about what they do. There comes a point when disclosure of this and that becomes clutter, leaving readers to wonder what the disclosed information has to do with anything.”
Media Matters has documented Will's many ethical problems at the Post. He has routinely cited other groups funded by the Bradley Foundation without disclosing his paid board membership. The groups include the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Federalist Society, and National Affairs quarterly. In 2012, media ethicists and journalism veterans criticized Will for the practice, calling it a breach of journalistic ethics.
Will also criticized opponents of then-Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's without mentioning his wife worked for Perry's campaign. He propped up favored candidates of the industrialist Koch brothers after appearing at a VIP dinner for their political group Americans for Prosperity. And he promoted a “key issue” of a lobbying group in his Washington Post column just two weeks after giving the keynote address at its conference.
The conservative writer's history of ethics problems goes back decades. In 1980, he reportedly “secretly coached Republican candidate Ronald Reagan for a debate with President Jimmy Carter using a debate briefing book stolen from the Carter campaign. Immediately following the debate, Will appeared on Nightline (10/28/80) to praise Reagan's 'thoroughbred performance,' never disclosing his role in rehearsing that performance.”
In 2003, when The New York Times asked Will if he should have disclosed to readers a financial conflict of interest involving conservative businessman Conrad Black, Will responded: "My business is my business ... Got it?''
The Society of Professional Journalists recently updated its Code of Ethics to include new provisions regarding transparency. The group's ethics chair cited Will's Americans for Prosperity disclosure failure as an example of a conflict journalists should attempt to avoid.