President Obama spent most of December 4 touring Allentown, Pennsylvania, meeting with local workers and discussing the economic crisis. A few hours later, the state’s former governor, Tom Ridge, was on MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews, offering up his own recovery plan. There were “modest things” the White House might try, like cutting taxes or opening up credit for small businesses, but the real answer was for the president to “take his green agenda and blow it out of the box.” The first step, Ridge explained, was to “create nuclear power plants.” Combined with some waste coal and natural gas extraction, you would have an “innovation setter” that would “create jobs, create exports.”
As Ridge counseled the administration to “put that package together,” he sure seemed like an objective commentator. But what viewers weren’t told was that since 2005, Ridge has pocketed $530,659 in executive compensation for serving on the board of Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear power company. As of March 2009, he also held an estimated $248,299 in Exelon stock, according to SEC filings.
Moments earlier, retired general and “NBC Military Analyst” Barry McCaffrey told viewers that the war in Afghanistan would require an additional “three- to ten-year effort” and “a lot of money.” Unmentioned was the fact that DynCorp paid McCaffrey $182,309 in 2009 alone. The government had just granted DynCorp a five-year deal worth an estimated $5.9 billion to aid American forces in Afghanistan. The first year is locked in at $644 million, but the additional four options are subject to renewal, contingent on military needs and political realities.
In a single hour, two men with blatant, undisclosed conflicts of interest had appeared on MSNBC. The question is, was this an isolated oversight or business as usual? Evidence points to the latter. In 2003 The Nation exposed McCaffrey’s financial ties to military contractors he had promoted on-air on several cable networks; in 2008 David Barstow wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the New York Times about the Pentagon’s use of former military officers–many lobbying or consulting for military contractors–to get their talking points on television in exchange for access to decision-makers; and in 2009 bloggers uncovered how ex-Newsweek writer Richard Wolffe had guest-hosted Countdown With Keith Olbermann while working at a large PR firm specializing in “strategies for managing corporate reputation.”
These incidents represent only a fraction of the covert corporate influence peddling on cable news, a four-month investigation by The Nation has found. Since 2007 at least seventy-five registered lobbyists, public relations representatives and corporate officials–people paid by companies and trade groups to manage their public image and promote their financial and political interests–have appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network with no disclosure of the corporate interests that had paid them. Many have been regulars on more than one of the cable networks, turning in dozens–and in some cases hundreds–of appearances.
For lobbyists, PR firms and corporate officials, going on cable television is a chance to promote clients and their interests on the most widely cited source of news in the United States. These appearances also generate good will and access to major players inside the Democratic and Republican parties. For their part, the cable networks, eager to fill time and afraid of upsetting the political elite, have often looked the other way. At times, the networks have even disregarded their own written ethics guidelines. Just about everyone involved is heavily invested in maintaining the current system, with the exception of the viewer.
While lobbyists and PR flacks have long tried to spin the press, the launch of Fox News and MSNBC in 1996 and the Clinton impeachment saga that followed helped create the caldron of twenty-four-hour political analysis that so many influence peddlers call home. Since then, guests with serious conflicts of interest have popped up with alarming regularity on every network. Just examine their presence in coverage of the economic crash and the healthcare reform debate, two recent issues that have engendered massive cable coverage.
As the recession slammed the country in late 2008 and government bailouts followed, lobbyists and PR flacks took to the air with troubling regularity, advocating on behalf of clients and their interests while masquerading as neutral analysts. One was Bernard Whitman, president of Whitman Insight Strategies, a communications firm that specializes in helping “guide successful lobbying, communications and information campaigns through targeted research.” Whitman’s clients have included lobbying firms like BGR Group and marketing/PR firms like Ogilvy & Mather, which in turn have numerous corporate clients with a vested interest in shaping federal policies. Whitman is a veteran of the Clinton era and when making television appearances continues to be identified for work he did almost a decade earlier.
According to its website, Whitman Insight Strategies has worked for AIG to “develop, test, launch, and enhance their consumer brand,” and continues to assist the insurance giant “as it responds to ongoing marketplace developments.” Whitman Strategies has also posted more than 100 clips of Bernard Whitman’s television appearances on a YouTube account. During a September 18, 2008, Fox News appearance to discuss Sarah Palin, Whitman proceeded to lambaste John McCain for proposing to “let AIG fail,” saying that this demonstrated “just how little he understands the global economy today.”
On March 25, 2009, in the midst of a scandal over AIG’s executive bonuses, Whitman appeared on Fox News again. “The American people were understandably outraged about AIG,” he began. “Having said that, we need to move beyond anger, frustration and hysteria to really get down to the brass tacks of solving this economy,” he advised the public. In neither instance was Whitman’s ongoing work for AIG mentioned.
Another person with AIG ties is Ron Christie, now at the helm of his own consultancy. While working at Republican-leaning firm DC Navigators, now Navigators Global, from 2006 through September 2008, Christie was registered to lobby on behalf of the insurance giant, lobbying filings show. During that period, AIG shelled out $590,000 to DC Navigators.
On September 18, 2008, Christie went on Hardball to discuss the government’s response to AIG’s near implosion days earlier. He was introduced only as a Republican strategist. As Chris Matthews mocked a presidential press conference on the financial crisis held earlier that day, Christie interrupted to say President Bush was “smart to have gotten a former person from Goldman Sachs who is a very bright man, who understands the markets and liquidity.” Christie was referring to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who had once been the chair and CEO of Goldman Sachs and who played a pivotal role in the AIG bailout. “This is not a political sideshow. This is putting the right person in his administration to deal with this crisis,” Christie said.
Bigger players were on AIG’s payroll, too: shortly after receiving its first bailout, in 2008, AIG hired PR mega-firm Burson-Marsteller to handle “controversial issues.” In April 2009, B-M hired former White House press secretary Dana Perino, already an established TV pundit. A month later she was picked up as a contributor to Fox News, where she has had occasion to discuss the economic meltdown.
This past July, for example, Perino joined a roundtable on Fox Business Network’s Money for Breakfast, which briefly noted her affiliation with B-M but neglected to mention its link to AIG. When a fellow guest commented that AIG had been “highly regulated” before the crash, Perino pounced, suggesting that current financial reform efforts demonstrate how “Washington has a tendency to overreact in a crisis.” When Gary Kalman of USPIRG suggested that regulations had, in fact, been rolled back for decades, Perino scoffed, “I don’t think there are many business people who would actually agree with that.”
(Whitman, Christie and Perino did not return requests for comment.)
Another conflict of interest plagued the televised debate over how to reform healthcare. Terry Holt, once a spokesman for the Republican National Committee and for House minority leader John Boehner, has also been, on and off since 2003, a lobbyist for the health insurance trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans. When he and three other Republican operatives formed communications and lobbying firm HDMK in 2007, one of their first clients was AHIP.
On March 5, 2009, Holt, introduced simply as a Republican, told MSNBC anchor David Shuster that the Obama administration was “going to, you know, cut Medicare benefits for something like 11 million seniors to start this big healthcare reform project.” By October AHIP was running ads in several states against the health reform bill that asked, “Is it right to ask 10 million seniors on Medicare Advantage for more than their fair share?”
Holt also made several appearances to discuss healthcare policy on CNN, where his affiliation with insurers was cited on several occasions, starting in September, though not during a September 14 appearance on The Situation Room, when Holt discussed healthcare reform efforts. The network subsequently experienced a small scandal in October when blogger Greg Sargent revealed that political analyst Alex Castellanos, a frequent commentator on CNN, had been helping craft attack ads for AHIP–including the one that referred to the “10 million seniors” losing Medicare benefits–while discussing healthcare policy on air, identified only as a Republican strategist.
When I interviewed Holt recently, he told me that there was one occasion when his work for AHIP was not mentioned on CNN, and that afterward, a producer contacted him to discuss his work for the trade group. Holt said that he believes that cable appearances “operate best with maximum transparency.”
“When you’re addressing the public, it’s a reasonable expectation that they be fully aware of your perspective–where you’re coming from–and I see my obligation as informing the news organization that’s asking me to appear or to comment about my standing and letting them be the judge,” he said.
Democratic lobbyists and corporate consultants have also made appearances to discuss health reform with no reference to their pharmaceutical or insurance company clients. On September 24, 2009, Dick Gephardt appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Meeting, where he labeled the public option “not essential.” Gephardt was asked by host Dylan Ratigan to discuss healthcare reform in light of his experience as a Congressman during the Clinton effort in 1993 and now simply as “an observer through this process.” There was no mention of his work advising insurance and pharmaceutical interests through his lobbying firm Gephardt Government Affairs, nor any mention that Gephardt is a lobbyist for NBC/Universal.
Likewise, Tom Daschle dropped by MSNBC on May 12 and July 2, 2009, and NBC’s Meet the Press on August 16, 2009. At each appearance he discussed healthcare reform with no mention of his work on behalf of lobbying firm Alston & Bird, which advises insurer UnitedHealth Group. Only during a December 8 appearance on MSNBC’s Dr. Nancy was Daschle finally confronted, albeit with kid gloves, about how his simultaneous work for lobbying firms on behalf of health insurers and meetings with administration officials on healthcare reform appeared to be at odds. “I certainly want to be appreciative of perception, so we’re going to take great care in how we go forward,” Daschle promised. A month later, on January 11, the former Senate majority leader returned to MSNBC to discuss healthcare with Andrea Mitchell. In the nearly ten-minute interview, his insurance work went unmentioned.
As of this writing, healthcare and financial reform legislation have largely stalled. And although it would be foolish to argue that Daschle’s TV appearances sank the public option or that Dana Perino’s punditry fatally wounded a proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, there can be no doubt that there is a cumulative effect from hundreds of appearances by dozens of unidentified lobbyists and influence peddlers that helps to drive press coverage and public opinion.
Janine Wedel, an anthropologist in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and author of the new book Shadow Elite, told me in a recent interview that while these influence peddlers are not necessarily unethical, they “elude accountability to governments, shareholders and voters–and threaten democracy.”
“When there’s a whole host of pundits on the airwaves touting the same agenda at the same time, you get a cumulative effect that shapes public opinion toward their agenda,” she said.
Frequent television news commentators are also often given access to policy-makers, who may find that they are meeting with not just a TV pundit but also a paid lobbyist. This past March, for example, the White House held an exclusive “communications message meeting” for high-profile Democratic strategists with top presidential aide David Axelrod. Of the eighteen attendees, almost all television regulars, a third were lobbyists or public relations flacks, such as Kelly Bingel, a lobbyist for AHIP and a partner at mega-firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, and Rich Masters, a partner at PR/lobbying outfit Qorvis Communications, where he works on behalf of trade group Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
Ultimately, no matter how often or how cleverly lobbyists and PR operatives have used cable news appearances to their business advantage, it is hard to fault them for the practice. In many cases, they have made no attempt to hide their work for corporate clients; some, like Terry Holt, have gone out of their way to inform producers and bookers of the work they’re doing on behalf of clients.
This leaves final responsibility in the hands of the cable news networks that invite lobbyists and corporate flacks on the air and fail to identify their affiliations. This past fall Aaron Brown, host of CNN’s NewsNight from 2001 until 2005, when the network pushed him out, and currently a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, told me that he didn’t think the problem was a lack of standards but a lack of enforcement. Bookers–“young, inexperienced people under a lot of pressure”–are unlikely to ask guests about potential conflicts of interest. “I think they’re often derelict in vetting,” says Brown.
For Brown, though, the lack of disclosure is symptomatic of larger problems in cable journalism, rooted in the shift to putting numerous analysts and strategists on television as an easy, inexpensive way to fill time. It’s “a lot cheaper than sending a correspondent to Afghanistan,” he says.
“What I find unconscionable about this is that it’s not like a struggling newspaper is looking for an inexpensive way to do journalism because they have no money. These are highly successful profit centers for the corporations that they’re spawned from,” Brown said.
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.”