Friday, August 7, 2009

Media boardrooms II: Dances with ethics

Today, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post expands on the emerging fiascette over whether, and how, MSNBC and Fox News entered into an agreement ending hostilities between “Countdown” host Keith Olbermann and “O’Reilly Factor” host Bill O’Reilly — only to see said agreement fall apart.

The bigger issue, of course, is the fact that the chairmen of the parent companies of those networks made this editorial decision, instead of the editors and executives of the news organizations themselves.

That little willful smudging of the line between journalistic interests and business interests is exactly the problem, and those two networks aren’t alone.

CNN has made a decision that points again to how the agendas of major news organizations, and the bigger companies that own them, are more responsive to the bottom line than the public’s right to know.

Greg Sargent, writing the Plum Line blog at the Washington Post Company’s Who Runs Gov Web site, reported Tuesday that CNN decided not to run an advertisement critical of the health-care industry and those working to block reform:
CNN’s reason: The ad “unnecessarily” singles out a top insurance industry executive by name for criticism.

The labor-backed Americans United for Change, a top White House ally in the health care wars, tried to book time on CNN and MSNBC for the ad, which hits the insurance industry for wanting to preserve the status quo and levels harsh criticism at insurance giant Cigna’s CEO, Ed Hanway.

“Why do insurance companies and Republicans want to kill health insurance reform? Because they like things the way they are now,” the ad says, and then slams Hanway’s annual salary of over $12 million and golden parachute retirement package of over $70 million.

Jeremy Funk, spokesman for Americans United for Change, told Sargent that CNN refused to run the ad nationally, and e-mailed the reason for rejection: “This ad does not comply with our clearance guidelines because it unnecessarily singles out an individual company and person.”

Sargent reported that MSNBC has decided to run the ad. Check it out below:

Sargent, with quotes from Funk, seems to suggest that at the very least, CNN is engaging in a double standard about the threshhold of acceptability of ads that name particular individuals. You have to wonder: if CNN really objected to potentially controversial ads that “single out an individual company and person,” as a consequence of robust public debate about an important issue, how’d they make any money during last year’s presidential election season, when the TV air was thick with bipartisan attacks, ad hominem, ad nauseam?

◊ ◊ ◊

CNN’s is merely the latest of journalists’ dances with ethics. Richard Wolffe, political biographer and former MSNBC political analyst, came under fire from Salon’s Glenn Greenwald the other day for not revealing his ties to a Washington lobbying organization while he was offering analysis for MSNBC.

Wolffe offered some idea of his thinking about conflicts of interest some time ago. “The idea that journalists are somehow not engaged in corporate activities is not really in touch with what's going on,” Wolffe said to Politico’s Ben Smith in June. “You tell me where the line is between business and journalism.”

Wolffe’s statement seems to suggest he thinks that line doesn’t exist just because he has a hard time finding it.

The response to that challenge would seem to be self-evident to a true champion of independent media. Any bright inescapable “line” between the interests of journalism and the interests of business is nothing less than an ethical boundary — one that properly begins with the ethics of the reporter himself. It means having a hearty skepticism about the ties that bind journalism and business. If the source of the ethics reflecting the editorial independence necessary for sound, reliable journalism isn’t the individual reporter, where is it?

For journalists, corporate relationships with news organizations (and the potential for editorial interference created by those relationships) are problematically cozy liaisons; they’re something to tolerate — a necessary evil in a world in which media and business are more entangled than ever — but not to fatalistically celebrate as the way things are. We know the way things are. That's what journalists are trying to make things better … one principled stand at a time.
Image credit: CNN logo: © 2009 Cable News Network.

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