The tale of Conrad Black, the media magnate facing inquiries by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department for looting millions from Hollinger International, the newspaper company he controlled, is foremost a story of rotten greed and corporate abuse. But, it's also a tale about media corruption and the lack of journalistic ethics.
"My business is my business. Got it?" That was syndicated columnist George Will's reply when asked why he didn't tell his readers in a column--defending Black's political views on Iraq--that he had been a member of an advisory group set up by Black and had received $25,000 per diem for each meeting he attended.
You'd think that Will's arrogant reply would have elicited quick rebuke--hell, even outrage--from his editors at the Washington Post. Instead, after theNew York Times revealed Will's renumerative affiliation with Black in a front-page story, Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of the Washington Post Writers' Group, peeped up: "I think I would have liked to have known."
So, it was heartening to see the Post's Ombudsman Michael Getler finally weigh in last Sunday. After quoting Fred Hiatt, editor of the Post's editorial page--who argued lamely that Will's "lack of disclosure doesn't strike me as a major lapse"--Getler blasted the Post's influential and widely syndicated columnist for his arrogant failure to disclose his conflict of interest.
"My own view," Getler wrote, "is one that is troubled by this omission. It is important to be reminded, as Hiatt points out, that this financial relationship ended more than two years before the column reference. Yet it seems to me that all journalists and commentators need to be scrupulous in making known any possible conflict of interests, real or likely to perceived. Sometimes it needs to be done in print, but it certainly must be made known to editors, who can make their own decision before publication or distribution. It shouldn't be so easy to just say 'got it' when it comes to conditions for access to the columns of the country's newspapers and magazines."
Or as Gilbert Cranberg, the former Chair of the Professional Standards Committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, put it in a letter to theNew York Times two weeks earlier, "The code of ethics of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, the organization of editorial page editors and writers puts it plainly: 'The writer should be constantly alert to conflicts of interest, real or apparent, including those that may arise from financial holdings, secondary employment, holding public office or involvement in political, civic or other organizations. Timely public disclosure can minimize suspicion. Editors should seek to hold syndicates to these standards."
As Getler noted, Will is no novice when it comes to flouting journalistic ethics. In fact, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman makes clear in his valuable book, The Sound and the Fury:The Washington Punditocracy and The Collapse of AmericanPolitics, super-pundits like Will "never developed a recognizable code of ethics." Remember "Debategate"--when Will helped Ronald Reagan in his debate with President Jimmy Carter and then, appearing on "Nightline" as an impartial observer, credited his pupil with a "thoroughbred performance"? At the time, a Los Angeles Times media critic called Will "a political shill," Chicago columnist Mike Rokyo called him a "lapdog," and the New York Daily News kicked him off their editorial pages (though it reinstated him too soon after).
Even Ben Bradlee, Alterman reports, then the nation's most respected newspaperman, and editor of Will's flagship daily the Washington Post, later complained that if it had been up to him, "I would have canned him on the spot." The denunciations were so vehement that Will was forced to respond with some pap about how he had accepted the invitation to help prepare Reagan for his debate as a columnist, rather than as a journalist. "But, far from resulting in Will's losing his job," Alterman writes, "the controversy only added to Willian lore, further blurring the line between watchdogs and the watched."
These days, as that line has become ever more blurred--largely due to media conglomeratization, Murdochization and the media's political timidity--it's worth commending Ombudsman Getler for trying to hold lapdog Will to some standard of accountability.