Media, administration deal with conflicts
By Paul Farhi,
It’s all but a journalistic commandment: Thou shalt not have a vested interest in the story you’re covering. Otherwise, a personal entanglement could color a reporter’s neutrality or cloud public perceptions of fairness. An obvious area of concern: when a journalist’s relatives or spouse is part of the news.
So what to make of all the family ties between the news media and the Obama administration?
According to the news media, nothing much at all. News organizations say they’ve worked out the conflicts — real or potential — involving their journalists. But that hasn’t stopped a few eyebrows from being raised.
The list of prominent news people with close White House relations includes ABC News President Ben Sherwood, who is the brother of Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a top national-security adviser to President Obama. His counterpart at CBS, news division president David Rhodes, is the brother of Benjamin Rhodes, a key foreign-policy specialist. CNN’s deputy Washington bureau chief, Virginia Moseley, is married to Tom Nides, who until earlier this year was deputy secretary of state under Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Further, White House press secretary Jay Carney’s wife is Claire Shipman, a veteran reporter for ABC. And NPR’s White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro, is married to a lawyer, Michael Gottlieb, who joined the White House counsel’s office in April.
Conservatives have suggested that these relationships may play a role in how the media cover Obama, specifically in their supposedly timid approach to reporting on the White House’s handling of the terrorist attacks last year on American facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The National Review Online recently claimed that such ties amount to professional incest: “The inbreeding among Obama’s court and its press corps is more like one of those ‘I’m my own grandpaw’ deals,” wrote NRO’s Mark Steyn in a posting titled “Band of Brothers.”
Such insinuations make media types bristle. They take exception to the notion that complicated judgments about the news — often made by others within an organization — have anything to do with personal favoritism or familial relationships. The critics, they say, can’t point to any direct evidence that such relationships have affected the amount or tone of their news coverage.
“There is zero evidence, zero, that [Sherwood’s relationship] has had any impact on our coverage,” says Jeffrey Schneider, ABC News’s chief spokesman. Schneider points out that ABC was the first mainstream news organization to report last month that administration officials had altered the White House’s talking points about Benghazi 12 times after the attack.
CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair says the Rhodes brothers “have been careful to avoid conflicts of interest for many years,” including 12 years during which David Rhodes was a rising star at Fox News Channel and his brother was beginning his career in government (among other jobs, Ben Rhodes worked for Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, and helped draft the 9/11 Commission report). David Rhodes was vice president of news at Fox during Obama’s 2008 campaign and election when his brother became a speechwriter and later a foreign-policy adviser to Obama.
Most news organizations, including The Washington Post, closely monitor the work of journalists with known or potential conflicts. (Full disclosures: The Post’s Justice Department reporter, Sari Horwitz, is married to William B. Schultz, the general counsel of the Department of Health and Human Services; the reporter of this article sometimes writes about CBS News and is related to an employee there.)
Some outlets demand that their journalists recuse themselves from assignments that might tread too close to a family member’s area of responsibility.
ABC, for example, says that Sherwood doesn’t get involved with any stories dealing with arms control, his sister’s specialty. NPR said Shapiro avoids any story in which a member of the White House counsel’s office participates, such as a recent background briefing on Benghazi. And CNN said Moseley, who formerly was with ABC News, recuses herself from working on any story about the Benghazi investigation, even though her husband left the State Department in February. (Nides, a Clinton confidant, was in charge of the State Department’s internal operations until February.)
However, sometimes the potential conflict is deemed so insurmountable that news organizations reassign their journalists.
ABC says Shipman, a former White House reporter, stopped covering politics in late 2008 after her husband, Carney, left Time magazine to become press secretary for Vice President-elect Joe Biden. She’s now the senior national correspondent for “Good Morning, America.” Shipman primarily covers softer topics for “GMA,” such as diet and fitness. But the ban on politics isn’t total; in April, Shipman filed a report on the “buzz” about former secretary of state Clinton’s 2016 presidential ambitions.
Biden’s current communications director, Shailagh Murray (a former Post congressional reporter), is married to Neil King, one of the Wall Street Journal’s top political reporters. Gerald Seib, the Journal’s Washington bureau chief, says King remains on the political beat but doesn’t write about Biden. “We’re aware of the potential for conflict, and we’ve had a plan to deal with it,” Seib says.
NPR’s Michele Norris has both recused and removed herself from her job as a result of a conflict. She stayed on the air as co-host of “All Things Considered” in 2004 but refrained from reporting on or discussing politics when her husband, Broderick Johnson, went to work for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign that year. In 2008, she stayed on the job and reported on the campaign while Johnson was an unpaid adviser to Obama’s campaign after NPR deemed his status too informal to affect Norris. But she left as host in late 2011 when Johnson joined Obama’s reelection campaign full time. Although her reassignment was supposed to be temporary, it became permanent at Norris’s request; she’s now a special correspondent.
“This is an issue that arises in our newsroom all the time,” said Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s senior vice president for news. “We take it very seriously.” She drew a distinction between Shapiro and Norris, saying there was “a low likelihood” Shapiro would overlap with his spouse on the White House beat whereas Norris would be “walking around land mines all the time” as a full-time host, complicating production of her daily program.
Indeed, there’s a relatively long history of intermarriage, and hence would-be conflicts, between journalists and politicians.
Donna Hanover kept her job as a local TV reporter while she was married to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) in the mid-1990s. Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz took a leave of absence during husband Sherrod Brown’s first successful campaign for the U.S. Senate; she quit the paper altogether before the Ohio Democrat made his second run in 2011. And after initially remaining at NBC News when then-husband Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) was elected California governor in 2003, Maria Shriver quit her job as a reporter. But Shriver’s conflict has been resolved; Schwarzenegger is out of office, and he and Shriver are estranged. The network announced in April that she was returning to the news division.
When Washington’s WJLA (Channel 7) hired Gail Huff as a news reporter in 2010, it made sure the wife of newly elected Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) got nowhere near conflict territory. Huff wasn’t permitted to report on the federal government, let alone the Senate, during her three-year stint, which ended in March.
“We have a very broad definition of conflict of interest,” says Bill Lord, the station’s general manager. “If anyone could possibly object to it, we’d change course. We err on the side of being careful. It just requires a good dose of common sense.”