washingtonpost.com
Do two reporters have a conflict on the beat?

By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Post reporter Juliet Eilperin covers the contentious issue of climate change. Her husband, a noted expert on the subject, coordinates international climate policy as a part-time senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. She has quoted officials from the liberal think tank in her stories, although not her spouse. Climate change is discussed at home, she said, but a "church-state separation" exists for areas where their work overlaps.

Can Eilperin remain neutral? Can she avoid even the appearance of bias?

Eilperin and her editors say yes. Some bloggers disagree. "Wouldn't it be nice if every activist group owned its own Washington Post reporter?" wrote one.

And readers have complained. "A review of her reporting shows bias towards her husband's point of view," e-mailed James E. Fish of Albuquerque. "Her loyalty to her husband makes it impossible for readers to believe her reporting is like Sgt. Joe Friday's 'Just the facts, ma'am.' "

Post ethics rules say the paper is "pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible."

Most are minor or easily resolved.

Editorial writer and columnist Ruth Marcus has a potential conflict because she's married to Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, but Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said she recuses herself from discussions involving FTC matters and doesn't write about them.

Sports columnist Mike Wise, who often writes about the Washington Redskins and owner Dan Snyder, recently began co-hosting a show on WJFK (106.7 FM), which competes directly with Snyder's ESPN (980 AM). Some readers have questioned whether Wise can be fair in his writing and on-air commentary.

Sports Editor Matt Vita, who said he's "aware of the potential conflict, or perception of a conflict," has asked Wise "to be perfectly transparent in the columns he writes on the Redskins and their management." Indeed, a recent column on the Redskins carried this: "Full disclosure: I host a radio show for a station that competes with Snyder's sports-talk station."

The Post's Howard Kurtz, arguably the nation's premier media writer, for many years has hosted the Sunday morning CNN press program "Reliable Sources." He often is criticized by bloggers and readers because he's paid by CNN, which he also covers.

Kurtz, a workhorse of a reporter, has a sizable following in print, online and on the air. But being paid by CNN presents an inescapable conflict that is at odds with Post rules. They state that a reporter or editor "cannot accept payment from any person, company or organization that he or she covers." There can be exceptions for some groups, such as broadcast organizations, "unless the reporter or editor is involved in coverage of them."

Kurtz, the Post media writer since 1990, got approval to appear on "Reliable Sources" about 15 years ago from then-Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

"My track record makes clear that I've been as aggressive toward CNN -- and The Washington Post, for that matter -- as I would be if I didn't host a weekly program there," Kurtz said. He discloses his CNN affiliation at the end of his columns and relevant news stories for The Post. And he's identified with The Post on "Reliable Sources."

Still, would The Post allow a reporter who covers energy to be paid on the side by a big oil company?

Eilperin's case is different. She covered climate issues long before her marriage in June last year to Andrew Light, whose full-time job is as director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University. When they met, he was a tenured faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"I forced him to move to D.C. because I didn't want to give up my job at The Post," she said. Eilperin also noted that Center for American Progress officials quoted in her stories are news sources she dealt with before she met her husband. And her stories sometimes question the group's assertions.

Several weeks ago, Quin Hillyer, a Washington Times senior editorial writer and senior editor of the conservative American Spectator magazine, blogged about Eilperin's situation. He's known her for 15 years and believes her to be "a very hard-working journalist who tries very hard to be fair."

Still, he wrote, "she has an obvious apparent conflict of interest . . . even if she is scrupulously objective." Hillyer urged giving her a new beat, "with a promotion."

It's a close call, but I think she should stay on the beat. With her work now getting special scrutiny, it will become clear if the conflict is real.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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