Steven Brill, writing at Reuters, discusses a fascinating idea: When talking heads discuss politics on cable news shows, the networks should identify those individuals' potential conflicts of interest.
Brill cited the case of of a guest host's recent rant on MSNBC about the Koch brothers. According to a Koch Industries website:
"Karen Finney accused Koch of a connection with the tragic circumstances surrounding the Trayvon Martin matter. 'Who was the Typhoid Mary for this horrible outbreak,' Finney asked. She then stated, 'It's the usual suspects the Koch brothers ... the same people who stymied gun regulation at every point who funded and ghost write these laws.' Because we saw this dishonest story line developing and were concerned other extremists would pick it up, we put out a public statement the day before Ms. Finney's rant explaining that this story line was totally false and irresponsible." (emphasis added)
Yet Koch's Director of Corporate Communications Melissa Cohimia, in a letter to NBC News officials, pointed out:
"Koch has had no involvement in this legislation. We have had no discussions with anyone at ALEC, the legislative policy group at issue, about the matter either. In fact, the only lobbying on firearms issues we have ever undertaken in Florida was in opposition to the National Rifle Association's support for a bill that mandated employers must allow employees to bring firearms onto company property."
In response, an NBC News Standards and Practices official conceded:
"The producers of our program should have included at least part of your statement, 'Setting the Record Straight on Firearm Coverage,' in their discussion. I have spoken to those involved with the segment."
Little good that will do, what with the herd of cattle already out of the barn and all.
Cohimia pointed out another telling fact:
"(O)n March 26, Ms. Finney signed and sent a letter on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee soliciting political contributions. Yet, she is presented to viewers as a 'political analyst' and not as a paid fundraising operative for the Democratic party, as would be accurate." (emphasis added)
Back to Steven Brill, writing about the issue:
"Is this accurate? Was Finney paid to send the fundraising letter, or is she on the Democratic Party payroll? If so, should she be identified on air as a paid Democratic Party fundraiser the way sister channel CNBC identifies stock commentators who hold interests in the stocks they are talking about?"
This is an idea I have espoused for some time.
Just as cable channels now require their stock touts to disclose potential conflicts in their recommendations of stocks and funds, cable news channels should require their political analysts to disclose any potential conflict of interest. If a guest, or guest host--as in the case of Finney at MSDNC--or certainly a regular host has worked for a campaign or lobbyist or P.R. firm that had or has ties to a candidate or issue, it should be declared up front.
It wouldn't have to take any of the networks' precious time; they could use their crawls or chyron graphics to do the job. But it would allow viewers instant insight into the personal motivations behind the political commentary they're hearing.
True, we can usually tell from their talking points where many of these 'analysts' stand, but as Brill noted:
"(W)ouldn't it add to the disclosure to have a message underneath the talking heads reminding viewers, whenever it's the case, that they are currently getting paid by those with a direct interest in what they're saying? For example, we know generally that (Al) Sharpton is a civil rights activist, but when he's talking about education reform, wouldn't it help to know that his main organization, the National Action Network, got $165,000 last year in contributions from Randi Weingarten's American Federation of Teachers, while its sister union, the National Education Association, chipped in $40,000?"
I would take Brill's suggestion even further, though.
-Why limit such disclosure policies to cable channels? We should demand that broadcast networks do the same.
-Why limit it to guests? Shouldn't reporters, anchors and hosts of news programs also reveal their ties to political parties and/or candidates? Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who don't know, or have forgotten, that ABC's George Stephanopolous has been a Democrat operative for much of his life. Likewise, some folks may have been napping and not noticed that Fox's Mike Huckabee was a Republican governor and presidential candidate.
Viewers have a right to know and to judge the influence of links and loyalties, or potential conflicts of interest, behind what reporters, hosts and anchors are telling them.
I would even go so far as to suggest that supposedly neutral reporters, hosts and anchors declare their recent voting history.
Think that might dissuade the general public from any misconception that the networks are fair?
-William Tate is an award-winning journalist and author