The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Conflict of interest: let the hacks reap the whirlwind!

What with Tom DeLay, Armstrong Williams, Jack Abramoff and the like, ethics have rather come to the top of the pile, news-wise, in recent times.

Journos are in high dudgeon - except those committed to the GOP theocratic project - about this new Gilded Age, and the pomposity of editorial writers knows no bounds.

Combined with which we have a bunch of journo-groupies in the Congress - with their reporter's shield bill - waxing farcical about the Founding Fathers' notions of a free press [1].

The fact is that journalism is, just like politics, as crooked as it can get away with.

To be fair, journalists are actors of the second degree: whereas Bush started the Iraq war, Judith Miller merely aided and abetted the felony. Hacks may vituperate for a prisoner to be executed; but only a politician can approve the deed.

On the other hand, at least Tom 'Air Miles' DeLay was required to register his foreign trips: the conflicts of interest that affect news product go largely unrecorded. Or, where recorded, not collated in a way useful for showing where conflicts of interest may operate.

Some causes are talked about more than others: the pressure of advertisers, for instance - recently illustrated by the General Motors decision to withdraw advertising from the LA Times - and USG pressure to play ball on journos on the Washington beat.

Others are less talked about: for instance, individual journalists are often hired by organisations as speakers (for fat fees that are not disclosed to readers).

And diversification of news organisations: the video news release 'scandal' [2] caught CNN in an awkward spot, since their operation CNN Newsource, a sort of video wire service that supplies TV stations with packages mostly originated for CNN broadcasts included the HHS VNRs in material it disseminated - and VNRs from all sorts of other PR operations that pay CNN for the privilege.

Do CNN, or the stations that use their stuff, disclose any of this? I should coco!

The FCC thinks they should: in a public notice (PDF) of March 13, it 'reminds' broadcasters of their obligations under §317(a)(1) of the Telecommunications Act of 1934 (47 USC 317, I think) - and then asks for comments on a whole range of questions, in a way to suggest that the FCC has not the slightest idea of how to apply the law to VNRs. (The idea of on-air announcements - as required by §317 for material within its scope - of the origin of VNR material is liable to go down like a ham sandwich at a barmitzvah with the broadcasters.)

The fact is that attempts by the media to frame themselves as White Hats battling the Forces of Evil (with as many Watergate references as you can shake a stick at) deserve to fail: neither politicians nor media deserve to be trusted an inch.

  1. Why, if a free press was so integral to the American polity did it take one-and-a-half centuries till Near v Minnesota to outlaw prior restraint as unconstitutional? An op-ed by Mike Pence - great name for a Congressman! - and Richard Lugar illustrates the genre.

  2. Significant, but nowhere near the moral armageddon pretended by some. One sensed misdirection at work.

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