The recent disclosure that ABC News' anchorman George Stephanopoulos had donated $75,000 to the charitable Clinton Foundation shows the importance of conflicts of interest rules for journalists. Unfortunately, it also feeds the false conservative Republican myth that the media is liberally biased.
Stephanopoulos should have known better and should be suspended by ABC News for a week or two.
Mainstream media journalists are trained to be fair and objective. Part of that training includes the mandate that journalists should be independent.
According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, "Journalists should... avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts."
The NYU Journalism Handbook for Students states:
Political and charitable donations: If a reporter donates to a politician running for office (say, the mayor) he shouldn't also cover the election -- that includes not only the mayor but also her opponents. Be forewarned: If you donate money to a politically active organization (Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association) your objectivity may be called into question if you write about issues of interest to these organizations.
Journalists are also prohibited from receiving free gifts and trips.
When you become a journalist, you are required to give up certain rights, such as advocating for a political candidate by wearing a campaign button, sporting a political bumper sticker, or having a lawn sign favoring a candidate.
Violations of conflict of interest provisions have led to journalists being fired or suspended.
In 2010, Keith Olbermann was suspended and nearly fired for violating an NBC News policy by donating to three political campaigns, including the congressional campaign of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
In 2012, a Carlisle Sentinel reporter was fired for a conflict of interest for writing stories promoting a concert without revealing that he was affiliated with the concert promoter.
In 2003, a San Francisco Chronicle technology reporter was fired, in part, because he had marched in an anti-Iraq war protest. In 2007, a TV reporter in Omaha who posted a photo of herself on Facebook.com with a congressional candidate, urging her friends to vote for him, is no longer working at the station.
The purpose of these ethical code provisions on conflicts of interest is to avoid the appearance of lack of objectivity or bias. Part of this rationale is that mainstream media outlets seek a broad audience and do not want to alienate substantial portions of their viewership.
Sometimes it is deemed that disclosure of a conflict is sufficient. For instance, NBC and MSNBC announce that they are owned by Comcast whenever they are doing a story related to Comcast.
Generally, despite the constant criticism of conservative Republicans that the media is liberally biased, the mainstream media does strive for objectivity. If you took one day and analyzed the coverage of a major political story by Fox News, MSNBC, and ABC Nightly News, you would notice the various biases or lack of bias. Only ABC would show all sides of the story and not have a biased host giving their opinions.
Stephanopoulos should have disclosed his donations to the Clinton Foundation during his reporting and interviews related to the topic or recused himself from reporting on that topic due to his donations.
The Stephanopoulos incident not only hurts his credibility, but hurts the credibility of the many mainstream media professionals who do take objectivity and fairness seriously.
It is possible for political operatives to become objective journalists. Diane Sawyer was a press aide for the Nixon Administration from 1970 to 1974. Tim Russert was a counselor to Governor Mario Cuomo in the early 1980s. Michael Smerconish was heavily involved in the campaigns of Arlen Specter and President George H.W. Bush and became a regional housing director in the Bush administration. David Gergen was an advisor in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton Administrations. All of them became well respected fair, neutral and objective reporters and commentators.
For most of his time at ABC News, Stephanopoulos has been fair and objective. This incident damages the reputation that he had built.
George Stephanopoulos should have known better. He knows that many people were suspicious of his potential bias because of his affiliation with the Clinton Administration as the White House Communications Director. ABC News should suspend him for a period of time as a message to other journalists that they need to be careful when it comes to conflicts of interest.