Luke Russert’s role at ‘Grammys on the Hill’ is questioned

April 26, 2012

News reporters are supposed to avoid the impression of endorsing or favoring a cause, an industry or a political group.

Did Luke Russert, one of Washington’s higher-profile journalists, violate that standard Wednesday night?

The NBC News and MSNBC reporter acted as master of ceremonies for a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Recording Academy, which presents the annual Grammy awards, and co-sponsored by the Recording Industry Association of America, the record industry’s leading lobbyist.

The event honored lawmakers who have backed the music industry in its various legislative battles over digital piracy, royalty fees and copyright law. The guest of honor was Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), a key figure on the House Judiciary Committee, which shapes copyright and trademark law. In addition, singer John Mayer was acknowledged for his philanthropic work on behalf of military veterans.

The boundary between appropriate and inappropriate can be hard to define, especially in a city where journalists, politicians, lobbyists and advocates of all types frequently find themselves at the same social events.


News correspondent Luke Russert attends the TODAY Show 60th anniversary celebration at The Edison Ballroom on January 12, 2012 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano/GETTY IMAGES)

PBS NewsHour” and “Washington Week” anchor Gwen Ifill caused a stir in conservative circles last week when her name surfaced as the emcee of an event honoring Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services.

Ifill, who sometimes reports on health-care issues, said she had signed on for the fundraiser for the Whitman-Walker clinic in the District before Sebelius was named as its honoree.

Amid suggestions that her involvement presented an ethical compromise, Ifill withdrew from the Sebelius tribute. Ifill cited a need to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with news sources.

Russert, the son of the late “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert and magazine journalist Maureen Orth, covers Capitol Hill for NBC and MSNBC, meaning he was involved in celebrating some of the people he’s supposed to cover impartially.

Russert declined Thursday to comment on his involvement in the music-industry event. He referred a reporter’s call to MSNBC spokeswoman Lauren Skowronski, who said Russert’s participation “was within the NBC News standard.” Skowron­ski noted that several Republican lawmakers attended the event and that Russert wasn’t paid for his participation.

Here’s how an invitation described the event (called “Grammys on the Hill”): “The Recording Academy’s annual advocacy event honors outstanding legislators who work to improve the environment for music makers and artists who use the power of music to improve our lives.”

In a speech, Daryl P. Friedman, chief advocacy and industry-relations officer for the Recording Academy, urged supporters, “Join me bright and early in the morning to begin our advocacy on the Hill.”

Berman touted the importance of strong intellectual property law and the fight against “global piracy.” He called on radio stations to compensate performers as well as songwriters when they play their music. The broadcast industry has opposed enactment of mandatory royalties.

Staff writer Amy Argetsinger contributed to this report.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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