When Disclosure Matters

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 15, 2007

How much should The Post disclose to readers about possible conflicts, political beliefs or family connections involving those whose work appears in the paper? Three recent complaints show that transparency isn't simple and that competing views can all be valid.

Sally Tyler of the District read a review of Lisa See's new novel "Peony in Love" and her subsequent online chat on washingtonpost.com. She wrote: "I was extremely surprised that neither . . . acknowledged that See is the daughter of Carolyn See, one of Book World's most frequent reviewers. I would think that journalistic ethics would require this admission in the service of full disclosure and to avoid a charge of conflict of interest."

Carolyn See and Lisa See are well-known writers. Book World Editor Marie Arana didn't think Carolyn See needed to be mentioned because she is not a Post employee and has nothing to do with what books are reviewed or by whom. Neither did the two Sees. Lisa See wrote in an e-mail: "[Carolyn] doesn't have a retirement plan nor . . . benefits such as insurance coverage. She's a bit like the gardener who comes to mow the lawn once a week."

"To be quite frank, the Post review was one of the more critical reviews of 'Peony in Love.' That hardly smacks of favoritism, preferential treatment or a breach in ethics. That Carolyn See is my mother and I am her daughter is not a secret. It certainly didn't affect what was written in the review. (I would have been happier if it had been a little kinder though.)"

Carolyn See wrote: "I've been insistent -- to the point of mulishness -- that I only review the books I'm assigned. I never ask to review a book, since that could lead to accusations of bias, either before or against particular writers. And I NEVER suggest a book for possible review."

Tyler still thought the connection should have been made. "Of course, the review of Lisa's book had no direct connection to Carolyn, but that's the point of a disclosure policy, isn't it? . . . When a reviewer is as frequent/regular a contributor as to be linked in the mind of most readers with the Post's book section, then one would think any disclosure policy that applies to staff members would apply to her."

Tyler's point is a good one; readers certainly might think that See is a staff member, and that is a reason to identify her. But must everyone always be identified as a son, daughter, sister, brother, husband, wife? When does a person get to have a singular identity? In a different context, many readers complained that op-ed columns on Jan. 23 and April 12 by Elizabeth Cheney didn't mention that she is Vice President Cheney's daughter. She was identified by her posts as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 2002 through 2003 and principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 2005 to 2006.

Would she have had those jobs if she weren't Cheney's daughter? Fair question. But does she have to be daddy's girl on the op-ed page? It's not as if her last name doesn't tell you enough.

Should someone's politics be a problem in reviewing films? For those who follow Stephen Hunter's reviews, they know he's a curmudgeon, politically conservative, a fan of John Wayne and all things macho.

Jeff Reed of Manassas wrote that it "was somewhat disturbing to read Stephen Hunter's negative review of Michael Moore's new film, 'Sicko.' It is no secret that Moore is an avowed leftie. Hunter, meanwhile, openly supports the conservative right and has made donations to the National Republican Congressional Committee. While I certainly don't contest Hunter's right to support any organization, in the context of reviewing a film that is political on so many levels, it was wrong for Hunter to receive this assignment." (He made one donation several years ago and not since. Post policy forbids such contributions.)

Hunter said he asked his editor, Leslie Yazel, if it was appropriate for him to do the review "given my politics and my record." Yazel believed Post readers wanted to know what the paper's Pulitzer-Prize-winning chief film critic thought of the movie.

But occasional readers who don't know Hunter's political bent would have been helped if he had pointed out his politics, in his own way, early in the review. Then readers could have judged the review with that in mind.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Alexandria, a distinguished retired newspaperman, wrote to praise the "superb" Post series on Vice President Cheney. But he noted "that [Michael] Gerson was twice mentioned (and once quoted) and identified as a former Bush speechwriter. I did find it a bit strange that no mention was made of his current status as a Post op-ed columnist."

Yoder is right; it was an issue of timing. Gerson's twice-weekly op-ed column started in May and is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. The Cheney project was in the works for 14 months, said Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations. "At the time that we interviewed him, Gerson was not a Post op-ed columnist and was far better known as a former Bush speechwriter. Gerson's column began five weeks before we published the Cheney series. During that time, we were putting the series into its production cycle for the newspaper. It just didn't occur to any of us that we needed to identify him as a columnist."

The Post has high standards on conflict of interest, but readers often want a standard even higher. When editors don't disclose, there will always be readers who see a problem.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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