Journalism is a profession steeped in sticky ethical decisions — decisions about conflicts of interest, how to identify sources, whether to eat a free piece of chicken at a conference. Yet amid all the murk, some fairly easy calls present themselves.
Today, for example, there’s a Summit on Working Families, hosted by the Center for American Progress, the Labor Department and the White House Council on Women and Girls. The point of the to-do is to “convene businesses, economists, labor leaders, legislators, advocates, the media, and ordinary citizens for a discussion on issues facing the entire spectrum of working families – from low-wage workers to corporate executives; from young parents to baby boomers caring for their own aging parents.”
So: It’s an event coordinated by a liberal think tank, a federal agency and the White House. The White House is occupied by a man with an agenda. All of this means that the media should cover the event. But what about participating in it?
CNN faced that very choice. It received a request to participate and declined.
Paul Colford, spokesman for the Associated Press, responded this way when asked if his organization would ever take part in such activity: “Seems like a hypothetical question, but suffice to say that we generally refrain from participation in events presented by people and entities that we cover.”
New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Carolyn Ryan says that her reporters weren’t asked to participate. And if they had been, would she have signed off? “No,” responds Ryan via e-mail.
Yet the program for the Summit on Working Families reflects a genuine White House-media synergy. MSNBC, ABC News, the New Republic, the Huffington Post — they’re all over it. Herewith, an itemized description of journalists’ participation, coupled with the outlet’s explanation for that participation.
*Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic is listed as moderator of a panel titled “Family Matters.”
The New Republic’s Annie Augustine:
This is an important topic to both The New Republic and Jonathan Cohn and one that Jonathan regularly writes about for the magazine. One of his more extensive pieces on this topic — his April 2013 cover story “The Hell of the American Day Care System” — recently won the Hillman Prize. When Jonathan received the invitation to moderate a panel at today’s summit, we reviewed the agenda and lineup of participants. There are moderators and panelists from a variety of backgrounds, with a range of viewpoints all working to tackle this important issue. Some other journalists participating in today’s summit include Katty Kay of BBC, Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC, and Claire Shipman of ABC. Also, Mark Weinberger of Ernst & Young, a republican who served on the Bush Administration, participated on Jonathan’s panel. Jonathan was not paid to participate in today’s summit and happily speaks to any group. For example, he’s previously participated in events hosted by Cato, Benjamin Rush Society, and the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.
*Claire Shipman of ABC News is co-moderating a panel (with Katty Kay of the BBC) on “A 21st Century Economy that Works for Business and Workers.”
An ABC News spokeswoman is looking into Shipman’s participation.
*Mika Brzezinski is moderating a panel titled “Career Ladders and Leadership.”
An MSNBC source e-mails that “Mika’s participation in the WH Summit on Working Families summit was approved by MSNBC – It’s in line with her ‘Knowing Your Value‘ platform and she’s been transparent with viewers about her involvement.”
*Robin Roberts of ABC News also appears on the program, alongside first lady Michelle Obama.
ABC News spokeswoman Heather Riley tells the Erik Wemple Blog that Roberts is interviewing the first lady in a session that has “no parameters, no restrictions.” The result will air on ABC News, says Riley. The request, she says, came from the first lady’s office and not from the Center for American Progress. The interview, continues Riley, “happens to make sense for Robin because a lot of topics are topics Robin has spoke about or written about.”
*HuffPost Live is listed as doing two segments in conjunction with the program, one that includes Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and another with White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Huffington Post Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim tells the Erik Wemple Blog via gchat (minor edits included) that the arrangement “seems totally fine to me. We’re interviewing top officials live and broadcasting it. Officials always set the terms around live interviews. Obama always gets interviewed in the WH. Honestly doesn’t strike me as unusual.”
More from Grim: “Also, the beauty of a live interview is that once the camera is rolling, the official has turned power over to the reporter. Anything’s fair game.”
Here’s a more official statement from Grim: “The Working Families Summit is a news event involving public officials and new policy endeavors on a very timely and relevant topic. The Huffington Post along with many other media are taking part as moderators of panel discussions with key newsmakers. We are excited to participate in a forum like this as it gives us an opportunity to ask questions and facilitate conversations. If such an opportunity had presented itself in past administrations, we would have loved to do it and will welcome the opportunity with future administrations as well.”
When the Erik Wemple Blog asked the White House about the merits of media participation, we received this response from a “White House official”: “We are serious about elevating the national conversation and changing our culture then we all have a part, including the govt, lawmakers, businesses, state and local officials, advocates, workers themselves, and of course the media. A number of the moderators today have also been covering and shining a spotlight on some of these issues for a long time.”
There’s a curious overlap: Media organizations and the White House both justify this collaboration by pointing out that the reporters have been concerned for years about the material at hand. All the more reason to keep them out of a White House summit on those issues.