Can we be trusted?

Journalists, Disclosures, and Conflicts of Interest

George Stephanopoulos interviews former President Bill Clinton about the Clinton Global Initiative happening in New York in September 24, 2014. (Heidi Gutman/Getty Images)

George Stephanopoulos interviews former president Bill Clinton about the Clinton Global Initiative happening in New York in September 24, 2014. (Heidi Gutman/Getty Images)

There is a good chance what I am about to argue is completely wrong. When I shared this opinion with a journalist friend in New York, after I unwisely ordered one more drink at the end of an already long lunch, he told me as much. He also pointed out I was offensively presumptuous to even hold a view on the issue, considering my questionable position in the world of journalism. Charlie (let’s call him that to protect the innocent) thinks I’m being precious.

My indelicate and ill-considered notion was this: when it comes to conflicts of interest, journalists are jaw-dropping hypocrites.

The conversation began with George Stephanopoulos. This week, Politico revealed the chief anchor of ABC News had repeatedly and generously donated to Hillary Clinton’s family-run charity, the Clinton Foundation. Republicans immediately described him as hopelessly compromised. A furious debate erupted, and when the yelling was over Stephanopoulos was mostly unrepentant, going so far as to concede, “In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have, even though I did it for the best reasons,” and then he stepped down from moderating the upcoming primary debate. To me, it was confounding that a journalist who ferrets out conflicts of interest could fail to see his own glaring problem.

But, Charlie argued, everyone already knows Stephanopoulos was biased, since he was formerly a senior adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House. What’s more, he continued, the donations were not hidden, the flow of value was from and not to Stephanopoulos, and no one reasonably thinks his reporting was subsequently skewed.

I needed to fight on more familiar ground, so I shared some recent Canadian examples. Exhibit A, of course, was Amanda Lang. The CBC’s senior business correspondent failed to disclose that she was dating a board member of RBC, one of Canada’s largest banks and a frequent subject of her reporting. Lang also neglected to share with her viewers that she had been paid speaking fees by the bank. And when there were internal debates about the merits of an RBC story, she did not recuse herself. The fact she did not see any of this as a problem is odd. The fact CBC management didn’t either is astounding.

I went on to explain the gothic menagerie of the Mike Duffy trial, and the revelation that the senator had paid $7,350 to the columnist L. Ian Macdonald to write a speech. Duffy also gave money to Ezra Levant (a pundit and journalist, albeit an overtly partisan one) for speechwriting; and wrote a cheque to another journalist, Mark Bourrie, in return for what seemed to be nothing more than friendship. None of these people apparently thought any of this might be problematic.

I then described the annual spectacles of the Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner and the Politics and the Pen gala: where journalists drink and cavort with politicians they are normally expected to dispassionately scrutinize, a display of shameless camaraderie that would dismay anyone living outside of the 613 area code. This point did resonate with Charlie and he admitted the Gridiron and White House Correspondents dinners in Washington were equally unseemly. But overall he was unmoved. He believes journalists are allowed to have a life outside the newsroom, and they are overwhelmingly professional and objective.

On this, we agreed and lunch ended. Many of my friends are members of the media, and I consider every one of them to be above reproach. Nonetheless, when I first arrived in Ottawa, a naïf from the hinterlands, I was surprised at how small and clubby the town was. When the cameras turn off, the press and politicians are fast friends. Journalists edit memoirs, ghostwrite speeches, lobby for appointments, advise public relations firms, provide insight to election campaigns, fly on government junkets (to Afghanistan for example), or are paid to speak to industry groups. And what makes this so ironic is journalists consider themselves to be the guardians of propriety, always the first to demand politicians explain the slightest whiff of a conflict of interest.

Individually, many of these cases could be excused, rationalized, and tossed away. But together these conflicts pile one on the other until you get a putrid mess. In Ottawa, we have lived with its smell for so long we don’t even notice it anymore. But perhaps others do; Canadians rank journalists among the least trustworthy professions. Undoubtedly, it is one of the reasons media critic Jesse Brown launched the innovative Canadaland venture to provide much-needed scrutiny to Canada’s over-comfortable press (they broke the Lang story).

Perhaps the reason I am so acutely aware of the problem is because the stink is heavy on me, too. I have so many potential conflicts of interest I can barely report the weather without bumping into one. Which is why, when I began writing for Maclean’s, I self-consciously followed the lead of Sun Media’s parliamentary bureau chief David Akin, and published my own disclosures. At the very least I can claim: “I told you I wasn’t to be trusted.”

I concede it is possible I am being puritanical. I did not go to journalism school. I am no one’s idea of an ethicist. I have spent no time in a newsroom and it is obnoxious of me to criticize an industry of which I have so little experience. And Charlie is right, I can be precious.

But, I think Akin understands something that Stephanopoulos, Lang, Macdonald, and many, many others don’t: Journalists sell trust. Their viewers, readers, and listeners are paying for the confidence that what they are being told is true and uncompromised. The public understands we’re all human, we have lives outside the office, we have friends, and we have bills to pay. They just want us to admit that too.


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Can we be trusted?

  1. There is far too much chumminess between the politicians and the media, starting with that basic sin…the press gallery dinner.

    While everybody is hobnobbing over the drinks tray, the country can go to hell in a hand-basket without anybody noticing.

    We get air-filled columns about trivia like hair, and the endless polls that mean nothing this far out or maybe ever, anymore.

    Depth is left at a buffet table.

    We have a few good people in the business….doing a whole report on FN at CBC, long columns on our political figures by some admirable journos [maybe 5] who actually say something…..the rest are no more than recycled bar talk, something I can get for free on an evening out.

    Everyone pounced on Elizabeth Mays non-event….probably because she’s no threat to anyone….while reasons for our ‘tanking’ goes unmentioned.

    All of this is dangerous.

    Reporters have known about the Senate for years….none of it is new….but reporting it, or anything else real in this country ruins one’s chances of joining that club.

    Maybe we should start recycling journos….bringing new ones from the hinterlands into Ottawa every 5 years or so for a fresh view….away from the hors-d’oeuvre displays.

  2. The mainstream media is no longer to be trusted. Even this outlet plays to an agenda so often as to be laughable.

    They decide what is important and then always put a spin on it.

    This has led to an increase in the following of various ‘secondary news” organizations.

    As an example: “The Toronto Sun went with, “Man who wore ‘burka’ sentenced in estranged wife’s killing.” Not a single other Canadian news outlet reported the story.”

    Too politically incorrect to handle – journalists are hiding the truth

    So – in my opinion – never trust a journalist

    Again – I cannot believe I am saying this – I agree with EmilyOne

    • Toronto Sun is not as influences by political correctness. Something CBC, Macleans, CTV, Global need to learn.

      Don’t want to offend the Muslims or Hindus or First Nations or other noisy minorities groups with the truth now.

      If a conservative took $50 million from foreign governments for their [their] Foundation, while in office, like Hilary did, we would not hear the end of it. But media white washes corruption and waste based on back room politics. I love this one as it shows how widespread media corruption is.

      • ‘Political correctness’ is simple manners….something we could use.

  3. Very serious issue. Surely a reasonable first step is what Gilmore is attempting here. Kudos to him and Akin. Hope others follow suit.

    Disclosure is great. But I actually have no issue with a journalist or publication having a “slant” or point of view anyway. In fact, I would, and do, actively seek out those slants opposite to my own for the sheer purpose of considering alternate points of view. I don’t, however, want those points of view hidden or masked in a facade of objectivity. My main objection to David Akin was not “his” work–he’s an excellent journalist and as reasonably objective as we should expect. But greater context matters and whatever objectivity his show on SUN news might have had was more than lost in the ridiculous attempt to cast that network as a news organization. It was a round the clock informercial incestuously tied to a political party. Akins brief intermission of sanity each day didn’t even qualify as lipstick on a pig.

    Skip the pretense and seedy attempts at manipulation and just be honest.

  4. Trust journalists? Your kidding right? Most articles posted today are some sort of propaganda, advertising, media socially managing its readers. Why do ya think govmint owns CBC and makes sure everyone in media is generally left-statism friendly?

    Much too is just copy type. Same on every station as if Macleans, CTV, Global, CBC get the same sources without any differences. Its as if politicians manage what we read, see and hear to influence us towards their own slanted ends. I could site lots of cases where one sided politically slanted articles are posted. Even the “trust media” wave as CBC, like Macleans post “trust us”. Even subjects media will not cover as they are too politically sensitive.

    I don’t trust any media today. Not sure if media has gotten worse over the years or using the internet allows us to check the propaganda feeds to see we are not getting it straight.

    Reality is news is a combination of facts, propaganda, slanted viewpoints, advertising and engineered to influence us and it is biased. And often facts, credentials, are missing, and never pure fact. In fact, often facts are omitted in bias, a myopic viewpoint.

    So do I trust media? NO. Media is more of a tool to manage us than it is about facts and good journalism. Only real point to argue is how biased is a news source, or article it posts.

    • I simply want the media to give us all the news as objectively as possible.

      That doesn’t mean they are in a conspiracy against us otherwise. Humans aren’t that organized.

      I think it’s more laziness than anything.

      • This is just a laughable lie, Emily. You are the first one who attacks any journalists “credibility” anytime they report news you don’t want to hear. You’re a bigger hypocrite than any journalist.

        • Well it’s Saturday night in Albertastan so I suppose your drinking is to be expected.

        • Hahahahaha!

          Bill’s latest tweets:

          Funny how media is not asking why Unions are only attacking Harper & not Justin or Mulcair same way they ask why pro-life only attack Justin

          Pro-life movement only attacking Justin is not OK
          Union movement only attacking Harper is OK

          The guy who heckled a reporter deserved to be fired but had he thrown a grenade & killed a US medic he would be considered a “victim” #media


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