WAMU sends mixed signals about executive Mark McDonald's outside connections

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

To boost its coverage of Congress, public radio station WAMU (88.5 FM) airs regular reports from Capitol News Connection, a Washington-based service whose programs air on many public stations across the country.

WAMU's connection to Capitol News Connection is closer than might be apparent, however. As it happens, the founder and chief executive of CNC's parent company is also the wife of the WAMU executive charged with determining which programs the station airs.

WAMU officials say they see no problem with the admittedly unusual arrangement, which isn't mentioned in any of WAMU's public filings or press material about the program. The station executive, Mark McDonald, has recused himself from any dealings about Capitol News Connection, according to WAMU.

But the ties between the station and CNC suggest at least the appearance of a conflict. WAMU, after all, buys such CNC programs as the congressional news show "Power Breakfast" and "This Week in Congress" with funds raised through listener donations and other contributions. In this case, the station is purchasing programs from a company operated by McDonald's wife, Melinda Wittstock, thus benefiting McDonald in the process.

CNC, in turn, benefits from its presence on WAMU's schedule. As one of the most popular stations in the Washington area and one of the largest public radio stations in the country, WAMU's contract represents a powerful calling card for CNC, as the service markets its programs to other public stations around the country. CNC's Web site even includes a promotional quote from Jim Asendio, WAMU's news director and McDonald's underling, calling it "irreplaceable and unmatched."

In an interview, McDonald says the relationship between WAMU and Pundit Productions -- the company run by his wife -- is strictly arm's length. McDonald said he does not take part in discussions about the programs, deferring decisions about it to Asendio, and to his boss, station manager Caryn Mathes. "I don't discuss it at all" inside the station, McDonald said. "I don't have anything to do with that."

WAMU spokeswoman Kay Summers said the station has been aware of the potential for "the appearance of impropriety" from the time it started purchasing CNC programming in 2007 and thus set up a "firewall" between McDonald and CNC. Although the station hasn't publicly disclosed the McDonald-Wittstock relationship, Summers said, "we always disclose it, if asked. It's not a secret."

But the unorthodoxy is compounded by McDonald's connection to another enterprise -- one he owns and runs on the side.

In addition to his duties at WAMU, McDonald also operates an outside consulting firm that offers "media coaching" services to clients. The business is called Pundit Media Consulting, which McDonald said is a separate entity from his wife's Pundit Productions.

Until last week, the Web site for McDonald's consulting business said McDonald offered to train clients in "all professions; from print journalists to CEOs, lawyers to pundits, public relations professionals to politicians." Among the services offered were instruction in dealing with the news media, such as "turning tough questions to your advantage [and] crisis management techniques for radio, TV, new media and print."

However, this language was removed from the Web site last week; McDonald acknowledged that he removed it after The Washington Post began making inquiries for this story.

The consulting business suggests another possible conflict: that the top executive for a radio station with an extensive newsgathering operation is privately paid by newsworthy sources to learn how to respond to the media, including potentially his own station's reporters. News organizations typically avoid such entanglements, lest they interfere with their news judgment or cast suspicion on their motives in deciding which stories to cover.

McDonald's boss, Mathes, said in an interview that she was aware of McDonald's outside activities and that she considered them permissible under conflict-of-interest rules set by American University, which operates WAMU.

However, Mathes said she had not seen McDonald's Web site advertising his services.

McDonald said that the business was an extension of his teaching duties at American University and that he has done "minimal work," mostly with "individuals who are graduating [from college] or coming into the [broadcast] industry. . . . I would not do anything to compromise the integrity of the newsroom."

His Web site tells a somewhat different story. Among the online testimonials is one from Brooks Rainwater, the director of local relations for the American Institute of Architects, a Washington-based organization. "Mark worked with me as a media coach, and as a result of his instruction, my confidence has increased when I speak to the media and give presentations to groups," Rainwater says on the site. " . . . Mark's media background offered a unique insight and understanding."

Rainwater apparently has appeared twice on WAMU, offering commentaries that promote AIA initiatives. On Aug. 27, for example, he offered a two-minute piece advocating environmentally friendly schools. "We can design schools that prepare students for a more successful future," he said. "At the American Institute of Architects, we believe in the power of design and are approaching sustainability with a solution-based approach." Rainwater didn't mention that such retrofitting would probably be a boon to members of his organization.

He was described on the air as "a commentator." His status as a former client of the station's program director was not disclosed.

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