Should CBS have disclosed Cantor contribution?

January 31, 2012

CBS’s 60 Minutes on New Year’s Day broadcast a deep look at House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Reporter Lesley Stahl pressed Cantor on Congress’s poor approval ratings. “You’re playing games, it feels like,” she said to Cantor, who promptly denied the charge. The 13-minute segment also included Cantor’s “other side” — that is, a fluffy look at his “warm, Southern gentleman demeanor,” to borrow Stahl’s words.

It was a good piece of television journalism. But would it have been a touch more complete if Stahl had disclosed that the CBS PAC had recently made a donation to a leadership PAC affiliated with Cantor? FEC records show a $2,500 disbursement from the CBS PAC to the Every Republican is Crucial (ERIC) PAC on Oct. 12, 2011.

Sonya McNair, a spokesperson for CBS News, suggests that there’s a good reason why the segment featured no full-disclosure moment: “CBS News had no knowledge, nor have we ever had any knowledge, of CBS Corporate PAC activity.”

Same word from the corporate side of CBS, which runs its PAC. News officials play no role whatsoever in the enterprise. “They’re not solicited, not consulted, not told” what the PAC is up to, according to Martin Franks, CBS’s executive vice president, planning, policy and government affairs. “If someone from the news division were to send us a check without being solicited, we would return it.”

Journalistic transactions go two ways, however: Could the contribution have influenced Cantor’s decision to sit down with Stahl? According to Cantor spokesperson Laena Fallon, filming for the 60 Minutes episode took place in November and December. She hasn’t responded to a question as to whether Cantor was aware of the contribution.

CBS’s Franks has this to say on the topic: “The suggestion of any link between a Cantor contribution and Cantor on 60 Minutes is ludicrous.” The CBS PAC made the contribution in connection with an event organized by the Cantor folks. The ERIC PAC had more than $830,000 on hand at year’s end, according to FEC documents.

CBS is something of an anomaly as far as broadcast network influence-peddling goes. Its corporate heritage — having once mingled with Westinghouse and Viacom — means that it has legacy interests to protect in Washington, including legislation affecting everything from highways to asbestos to retransmission consent. (ABC and NBC do not have their own eponymous PACs, but rather are represented by larger, overarching corporate PACs). To advance its agenda, CBS PAC solicits contributions exclusively from corporate officials and dishes them out to various lawmakers. The $2,500 contribution to Cantor is on the upper end of its contribution amounts over the past six months.

There’s no reason to doubt the company’s official statements. A former CBS news manager says that over many years on the Beltway beat, he never once heard from the corporate suits on an editorial matter, nor did he know what they were doing. He just happens to work in a system where corporate media and lobbying cash produce a losing scenario, one in which FEC filings generate an aura of suspicion around transactions that may well meet high ethical standards.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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