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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Conflicts of Interest and Interesting Conflicts Pt. I



How do you like this for a correction?
A story in Friday's Tempo section about Oprah Winfrey's visit to hurricane-stricken New Orleans contained comparisons of Winfrey to President Bush that were unfavorable to Bush. The Tribune failed to disclose that the writer was a contributor to the presidential campaign last year of Bush's opponent, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Tribune standards require disclosure of any such conflict of interest.
That's from Saturday's Chicago Tribune, and the reporter in question is my former colleague Maureen Ryan. Evidence of her political leanings can be found here (a full search at fecinfo.com comes up with a total of $4,000 in political giving last year). I was at the Tribune when word of Ryan's donations--which clearly violated the Trib's ethics policy--started going around after, I'm told, a reporter happened across them during a database search (there was no question who it was, since she listed her employer and occupation on the FEC donor forms as "tribune company/writer.") There was some correct tsk-tsking of what was clearly a boneheaded move on Ryan's part, but the astonishing thing is that, as it turns out, she had gotten a sign-off from her superiors before she made the donations. Also astonishing is the fact that someone on a hack's salary has $4,000 lying around to give to the least compelling political candidate in modern history, but that's another story.

Anyway, I guess it was all cleared up and Ryan was told to keep her money to herself from now on. But it looks like that disclosure will be appended to every story she writes from here on out that comes anywhere near politics.

Which is pretty stupid. I don't think reporters ought to be publicly aligning themselves with political parties (which is what a donation really amounts to, since the logs are publicly available). But it's not, as the correction says, a conflict of interest to do so. A conflict of interest is when someone has more than one interest, and two or more of those interests are in conflict with each other.

Take, for example, a newspaper editor. Let's say this newspaper editor has a professional interest in seeing to it that his or her newspaper aggressively and fairly reports on the doings of an enormous media and entertainment conglomerate that reaches tens of millions of people through its newspapers, television stations, and sports teams. And let's say this newspaper editor also has an interest in seeing his or her retirement account, which consists in large part of stock (and options to purchase stock at a reduced price) in the aforementioned media and entertainment conglomerate, continue to grow in value. And let's further say that this newspaper editor's future at the newspaper and the company that owns the newspaper depends in large part on decisions made by executives at the amentioned media and entertainment conglomerate. In such an instance, a conflict of interest would obtain each time our hypothetical newspaper editor made a decision about how to cover the aforementioned media and entertainment conglomerate: The editor's professional interest in fair and aggressive coverage could conflict with his or her personal interest in career advancement and a secure retirement. So that's a conflict of interest. I don't recall ever seeing any conflicts like that one disclosed in the pages of the Tribune.

In Ryan's case, there is no conflict. Her political donations don't constitute an interest in the election of a Democrat to the office of president, they disclosed a pre-existing interest. You can't fault Ryan for holding partisan political views. The problem with her donations is that they announce those views to anyone who cares to look through a donor database, thereby giving ammunition to anyone who wants to attack the Tribune's credibility and inviting unwanted scrutiny of her work. And by publishing a well-intentioned clarification, the Tribune merely compounded the problem and made far more people aware of Ryan's political allegiances than were aware before.