Conflicts of interest are the bane of the news business. Last year, CNBC was accused of one. It has now taken steps to prevent such a thing from happening again. As a result, no one can accuse the network of being soft on ethics. But is it now being too hard?
Five months ago, CNBC, which covers business news and business news only during its daytime hours, was charged with conflict of interest when it assigned anchor Maria Bartiromo to interview Sanford Weill, the chairman of Citigroup. Bartiromo, you see, owns 1,000 shares of Citigroup stock and fessed up to her holdings during the interview. Some people gave her credit for candor. Others did not. As media analyst Robert Steele pointed out, “Disclosure doesn’t resolve a conflict of interest; all it does is reveal that a conflict exists.”
Now, CNBC has come up with some new policies for its employees, and as Patrick McGeehan wrote recently in the New York Times, those policies represent “one of the hardest lines to head off financial conflicts of interest in the media industry.”
The network announced that neither its managers nor its news staff--nor, for that matter, their spouses or dependents--will henceforth be allowed to own individual stocks, other than those of the firm that employs them. Further, as McGeehan put it, “The rest of the network’s full-time employees, all the way down to those who apply makeup and hairspray to guests, will be able to keep any securities they own, but will not be allowed to buy more.”
It is a draconian set of guidelines. It might well be necessary. But is it fair? And is it possible that something can be both necessary and unfair.
One of the greatest problems that a journalist faces is maintaining, or acquiring in the first place, objectivity. And one of the most important questions that he must ask himself is: How far do I go in pursuit of that goal?
I know journalists who do not seem to care one way or the other, who view self-aggrandizement as a far more important goal than objective reporting.
But I also know journalists who do not vote, because they think that would compromise their ability to view politics neutrally. I know journalists who will not eat the free meal at an event they are covering, because they think that would compromise their ability to cover the event impartially--or that it might at least give such an impression to observers. And I know journalists who do not subscribe to certain publications, because they think that would seem to be an endorsement of the publications’ views.
On Fox News Watch, when we discuss the coverage of warfare and national security, viewers seem almost unanimous in wanting reporters to withhold information that might endanger the lives of U.S. soldiers or the confidentiality of U.S. missions. They say that reporters should be citizens first, providers of information second. And I agree.
But citizens are allowed to vote. Citizens are allowed to go to banquets and subscribe to any magazines that interest them. And citizens are allowed to purchase stocks and bonds. Can journalists be asked to behave as citizens only when it suits their critics, and then to give up the perquisites of citizenship when that is what their critics desire?
This column has asked several questions. It has provided a grand total of no answers. I do not know what the answers are; the questions, I admit with some embarrassment, are too tough for me.
But I can express a fear: that if journalists do not police themselves sufficiently, following the dictates of their own consciences (for instance, Bartiromo recusing herself from the Weill interview), and if, as a result, their employers are forced to step in to impose restrictions, as has been the case at CNBC, those restrictions might be so severe as to have unintended consequences.
Perhaps capable and dedicated men and women will decide journalism is no longer worth the trouble. Perhaps they will leave the field to people of lesser principle and accomplishment. Perhaps ethics must begin with the individual rather than the corporation.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).