03/06/2013 11:09 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

An Open Letter to MSNBC: Disclose Ed Rendell's Conflicts of Interest

Dear MSNBC President Phil Griffin,

I am a longtime fan of MSNBC. I have watched it regularly for years and admired its growth into a commercially successful platform for smart news and analysis.

That is why I am so disappointed that MSNBC did not respond to a CREDO petition asking it to disclose Governor Ed Rendell's conflicts of interest when featuring him as a guest or analyst. The petition simply states:

Disclose Ed Rendell's conflicts of interest due to his position as a co-chair of the Fix the Debt campaign -- a billionaire-financed campaign to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- when he appears on MSNBC to offer commentary on budget, public investment, infrastructure or environmental issues.

The petition, started last week by Sean Kitchen, a student at Kutztown University and a former constituent of Rendell's from Horsham, PA, now has more than 6,000 signers.

Mr. Griffin, I have called and emailed you personally asking for comment on the petition, and to date, I have received no response.

Governor Rendell's role as co-chair of the Fix the Debt campaign stands out because he frequently uses his platform as an MSNBC analyst to call for cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Specifically, Governor Rendell has suggested on MSNBC that the president should enact the chained CPI, a cut to Social Security benefits that would grow deeper over time, hitting oldest beneficiaries hardest. He has also said that President Obama should propose raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67, which is projected to deprive nearly half a million seniors of health insurance and drive up out-of-pocket costs for just about everybody else.

Whatever one thinks of Governor Rendell's positions, the public deserves to know that he is not just a neutral commentator. The public deserves to know that Governor Rendell is a co-chair of Fix the Debt, an initiative funded by private equity billionaire Peter G. Peterson to promote Social Security and Medicare cuts as part of a Grand Bargain. The public also deserves to know about Governor Rendell's lobbying work for the investment bank Greenhill & Co., the Ballard Spahr law firm, and the wound care technology company KCI USA. All of these organizations have an interest in particular policy outcomes that may influence the positions Governor Rendell endorses on MSNBC.

As recently as 2010, MSNBC was the gold standard of transparency in the media world. In November 2010, the network suspended first Keith Olbermann, a Democrat, and then Joe Scarborough, a Republican, for donating to political candidates. MSNBC came under intense criticism at the time for the decision, but defended it in the name of consistency with NBC News' policy on conflicts of interest. As of 2007, MSNBC's policy said:

Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the President of NBC News or his designee.

By contrast, Fox News' parent company, News Corporation, donated $1.25 million to Republican candidates in 2010, and star host Sean Hannity donated $2,400 to Republican candidates, with little fanfare.

If the NBC News standards applied to Scarborough and Olbermann in 2010, why do they not apply to contributors like Governor Rendell in 2013? Does co-chairing the Fix the Debt campaign not constitute a "civic" or "outside activity" that "creates the appearance of a conflict of interest"? Nobody is asking that Governor Rendell be suspended as Scarborough and Olbermann were. Petition signers, including me, are just asking that MSNBC disclose Rendell's involvement with outside groups when he appears.

Disclosures are important at all levels, including letters like these. During the week, I work for Social Security Works, an advocacy group dedicated to protecting Social Security from benefit cuts. Every Saturday, I produce and contribute to the nationally syndicated radio and YouTube show Take Action News with David Shuster. Whenever I speak about the issue of Social Security -- which is often, because it is an issue I care about -- I disclose my affiliation. This past Saturday, I did an entire segment on the CREDO petition, and I made very clear my affiliation with Social Security Works and my involvement in organizing the petition. When I asked David Shuster on air to weigh in, he first noted his years of work at MSNBC and the fact that his departure was a result of a disagreement with you. Only then did he speak about Rendell and MSNBC's disclosure obligations.

Viewers can decide for themselves whether our affiliations affected our presentation of the issue. I only ask that viewers get to make the same informed evaluation of positions taken by Governor Rendell and other MSNBC analysts.

I look forward to your response.


Part 1: Take Action News segment on Petition

Part 2: Take Action News segment on Petition

Views expressed are the author's own.