The Media-Lobbying Complex
Jeff Cohen, who helped found the nonprofit group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), echoes some of Brown's critiques. Cohen worked for MSNBC for several months in 2002 and published a book in 2006, Cable News Confidential, about the experience. When I asked him why men like Gephardt and McCaffrey could go on television with no reference to their consulting and lobbying, Cohen explained that, based on his experience at MSNBC, "these regulars get introduced the way they want to be introduced.
"This is the key: Gephardt will always be the former majority leader of the House. Period.... These guys know they won't be identified by what they do now but instead by what their position was years or decades ago," Cohen said.
Some of this has changed in recent months, with CNN starting to identify the industries some analysts work for. For its part, Fox News has long identified the lobbying or PR firms of some--though not all--guests, but the network does not give viewers any information about the kinds of clients these firms represent. (CNN would not return calls, and Fox News did not provide comment.)
Then there's MSNBC, the cable network with the most egregious instances of airing guests with conflicts of interest. Only on MSNBC did Todd Boulanger, a Jack Abramoff-connected lobbyist working for Cassidy and Associates, go on a TV rehabilitation tour with no identification of his work, all while he was under investigation for corruption (he pleaded guilty in January 2009). Only on MSNBC was a prime-time program, Countdown, hosted by public relations operative Richard Wolffe and later by a pharmaceutical company consultant, former Governor Howard Dean, with no mention of the outside work either man was engaged in. And MSNBC has yet to introduce DynCorp's Barry McCaffrey as anything but a "military analyst."
When I spoke with MSNBC in mid-January, the network seemed eager to prove it is fixing the problem. David McCormick, the ombudsman for NBC News, deals with questions about standards and practices at MSNBC. (Both organizations use the same policies-and-guidelines booklet, which McCormick helped develop; CNBC has more stringent disclosure requirements as a result of SEC rules.) McCormick told me that the issue of conflict of interest has been on his mind of late. He said that MSNBC intended to contact its guests and brief them on its disclosure policies, adding that "trust is a huge part of the business" and that the network relies on guests "to let us know of any potential conflicts."
"We've been talking to our folks for a number of years about the importance of transparency and letting the viewers in on where folks--it could be contributors, analysts or experts that we don't pay--fit into the mosaic of a story," said McCormick. "Are we perfect about it? No."
In fact, potential conflicts of interest have been a topic of concern for more than a decade. An October 1998 copy of the "NBC News Policies and Guidelines" devotes an entire chapter to "Guests/Analysts/Experts/Advocates." It states:
It is essential that our viewers understand the particular perspective of all guests, analysts and experts (whether paid or not) who appear on our programs....
Our viewers need all relevant information so they can come to their own conclusions regarding the topic at hand. It is not enough to say: "John Doe of XYZ Foundation."...Likewise, it may not be enough to say Jane Doe, NBC consultant or analyst.... Disclosure may be made in copy or visually. But it must be done in a clear manner.
McCormick told me that financial conflicts of interest were "in the same category as ideological or political interests," but also suggested that MSNBC's practice of posting information about guests on its website was an adequate way to air potential conflicts of interest. McCormick emphasized that this reform was "a work in progress."
A few days later, on January 22, I happened to catch MSNBC's Morning Joe. Mark Penn, identified only as a Clinton administration pollster and Democratic strategist, was suggesting that the Obama administration put healthcare reform on ice. Unmentioned: Penn's role as worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller, which has an entire healthcare division devoted to helping clients like Eli Lilly and Pfizer "create and manage perceptions that deliver positive business results."
At times, it begins to seem as though the problem is beyond fixing, an unfortunate but unavoidable reality of our media and political landscape, in which the lines between public service and corporate advancement are so blurred. It is clear that the pressure applied on the networks so far has not resulted in systemic change. Even in the aftermath of increasing scrutiny--particularly after David Barstow's Pulitzer Prize-winning exposés in the Times--General McCaffrey continues to appear on television without any caveats about his work for military contractors. As Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has observed, none of the networks involved in the scandal have ever bothered to address Barstow's findings on air, and they noticeably omitted Barstow's name from coverage of the 2009 Pulitzers. "It's almost like a mysterious black hole that this issue, which is enormous, is getting no attention from the offenders themselves," the Society for Professional Journalists' ethics committee chair Andy Schotz told me recently.
Jay Rosen, a media critic and journalism professor at New York University, has a different take. "More disclosure is good--I'm certainly in favor of that--but why are these people on at all?" asks Rosen. "They have views and can manufacture opinions around any event at any time."
Rosen echoes something Brown mentioned to me. Watching cable news cover the 2008 election with more analysts crammed at one table than ever before--as if to ask, "How many people can we put on the set at one time?"--Brown said he was "amazed how little they had to offer." He went on, "We live in a time where there are no shortages of opinions and an incredible deficit of facts."