[guest post by Dana]
Last week I put up a post about George W. Bush and his art exhibit opening in Dallas. The post included a video of Bush’s daughter Jenna Bush Hagar interviewing the former president about his paintings on NBC’s The Today Show.
Last night, I stumbled upon a link to a story entitled, “The Ethics of NBC Letting George W. Bush Be Interviewed by His Daughter”. While acknowledging the segment on Bush was a commercial success for NBC, the people at Think Progress were troubled,
[A]s a journalistic outlet, what are the ethical implications of turning over an interview with a former President to his own daughter?
Citing the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which states, “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived”, three experts in ethics and journalism were contacted by the publication. According to Think Progress, all three “raised substantial concerns with the segment”.
Marc Cooper , professor at the Annenberg School For Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, said the segment,
“helps erode any lingering hope the public might have that these powerful news organizations have much intention to hold the powerful accountable and instead prefer to cater to their children and play patsy with their parents.”
Cooper added that “networks long ago abandoned any serious ethical standards, especially for its morning shows.”
From Todd Gitlin, professor and chair of the Ph.D. program at the Columbia University School of Journalism,
“The disgrace of network broadcasting is always making new bottoms.” He noted that there were any number of serious questions NBC News could and should pose to former President Bush, including for example the Iraq War, the collapse of the financial system, and his inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change. Instead, according to Gitlin, NBC “pretties up the self-indulgence of the president… those are the journalism ethics in charge… as satire, this is rock-bottom stuff.”
Bill Reader, a professor of journalism at Ohio University, seemed less concerned,
“I am thinking it is really not much different than when NPR reporters interview their parents for cutesy Mother’s Day or Father’s Day features. Rather his concerns center on the energy spent “on a pointless puff piece about ‘daddy’s painting hobby’” which he calls “a vapid waste of time.”
At the end of the report, Think Progress dutifully informed readers that Chelsea Clinton’s hiring as a special correspondent at NBC’s Rock Center also resulted in criticism being lobbed at NBC, and they provided a link to several brief New York Magazine pieces commenting on nepotism and incestuous privilege. I was, however, unable to locate any question of ethics regarding the Clinton hire in Think Progress archives.
In light of said experts and their comments, if we are questioning ethics, should the ethics of an overtly left publication seeking out the journalistic opinions of several overtly politically like-minded professors be questioned?
After all, if the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics warns, “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived”, shouldn’t Think Progress have considered that a conflict of interest might easily be perceived by readers upon noting the politics of the go-to professionals? Especially, as ultimately, this is about politics. Because Bush.
Clearly, Think Progress questioning the ethics in this, and the subsequent statements of Cooper and Gitlin confirm that partisanship was a motivating factor. Being generous, whether intentionally or not, their statements rallied the troops and got the righteous indignation motors revving again. Why else go after a former president who has intentionally avoided the public eye since leaving office and has subsequently protected his private life? If Think Progress were seriously interested in ethics, they would do well to focus on the political power players currently making noise and news, rather than on those who have clearly avoided the spotlight and have no intention of seeking public office.
As I am not a professional journalist, I sought out one who decades ago graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and has worked in journalism for most of her professional adult life, including as a contributing editor at a major metropolitan newspaper. She made the following observations,
Puff pieces have always been a part of EVERY news organization. This was a feature and they likely only got Bush to do it because his daughter works there. Isn’t that why they hired her?
And it wasn’t even a feature that deeply explored whether his art was good or what influences he has been inspired by. It was puff pure and simple. Every TV news organization does PUFF pieces. The question is, do they do them right before a major election in favor of the candidate their puffing about or in front of passing a huge and hated-by-the-population law?
It’s kind of like Michelle Obama on the cover of Home and Garden. Or the Obama family on the cover of People. Or Michelle Obama at the Oscars. Do a search on their critiques of that journalism and … what do you find?
Ironically, after doing a good faith search of Think Progress archives, as well as articles specifically by author of this article, Judd Legum, I was unable to locate any questioning of ethics when Chelsea Clinton interviewed her mother, Hillary Clinton, which aired on ABC News in 2011. At the time of the interview, Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State, and the opening questions from Chelsea to her mother, were, “What in the 21st century is the appropriate role of government? What is the appropriate role of civil society? What can and should government do? What can and should civil society do?”
In closing, it should be noted that author Judd Legum’s bio reads in part, “Judd was the Research Director for the Hillary Clinton for President campaign.”