Read the original item: CBC reporter’s conflict of interest
Regular readers will be aware that I filed a complaint with CBC Ombudsman Kirk Lapointe over the conflict involving Legislative Bureau Chief Stephen Smart, husband of Rebecca Scott who holds the position of Communications Officer and Deputy Press Secretary for Premier Clark, a relatively senior OIC political appointment. Lapointe referred this to Jennifer McGuire, General Manager and Editor in Chief of CBC News and says “Programmers are asked to try to respond within twenty working days.”
Scott was appointed as a Level 4 excluded employee and staff at that level (reported in the most recent Public Accounts) average $175,361 in annual salary. Scott’s is not a junior position. The marital connection between the main CBC reporter covering the Government of British Columbia and a senior member of the Premier’s staff is such that Smart should be reassigned. I don’t believe that disclosure is an adequate remedy.
This government funnels almost all its public communication through Premier Photo-Op’s office, whether its an announcement about federal ship building contracts, a defence of unconstitutional driving laws, opening of a vocational training centre, changes to aboriginal child care, investment council appointments, an immigration task force, a North American Perimeter security announcement or a comment on tomorrow’s weather, Clark’s presence is stamped on each media effort. The items noted above, by the way, are announcements from the Premier’s office in recent days. Well, all but one of them.
Some might suggest the influence of the Smart family is a factor — Justice William B. Smart of the BC Supreme Court is Stephen Smart’s father — but that seems a stretch. I did a little reading on spousal conflicts of journalists in other jurisdictions. It is not common when major media is involved because self-policing is generally effective. In British Columbia, the CBC seems to have taken an improper position and, perhaps through stubbornness and unwillingness to admit error, the broadcaster leaves Stephen Smart in place.
Since the New York Times is America’s pre-eminent newspaper, its analysis of conflicts in journalism is worth examining. Award-winning journalist Linda Greenhouse covered the U.S, Supreme Court for the New York Times. In 2006, she wrote about a case involving a prisoner held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. One of the court filings she reported on was prepared by lawyer Eugene Fidell, Greenhouse’s husband.
Clark Hoyt, NYT Public Editor reviewed the situation after Greenhouse was criticized for reporting on a subject involving her spouse. Hoyt and others at the newspaper thought the conflict was “abstract” and Fidell’s relationship with the case minor. Hoyt though was troubled by the issue and published Public and Private Lives, Intersecting in 2008. Excerpt:
“All journalists have competing loyalties,” said Robert M. Steele, an ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“But when do those competing loyalties create real conflicts that threaten the integrity of a news organization? What do you do, for example, when a journalist’s spouse or lover is also a newsmaker?
“…Lee Wilkins, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and editor of The Journal of Mass Media Ethics, said, “Conflict of interest is practically the only place in ethics where perceptions matter almost as much as what is the case.” Like it or not, the perception is that Greenhouse is writing about something in which her husband is a player — and The Times isn’t telling the public. Newspapers routinely question public officials in similar circumstances…”
Hoyt absolves Greenhouse of unfairness and bias in her work as a NYT reporter and focuses too much on questioning motives of the high profile complainant in this case. However, he did admit the newspaper’s policies on conflicts involving spouses needed improvement. He recommended,
“The Times should systematically disclose more about what Steele termed the intersections between the personal and professional lives of its journalists.”
Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey looked at the issue in 2007:
“Some of America’s most prominent political journalists are, quite literally, wedded to the 2008 presidential race: Their spouses work for one of the candidates.
Relationships that cross the media-political divide raise ethical questions for the journalists and their employers. Should the potential conflict of interest merely be disclosed to readers or viewers? Or should the journalists be shifted to new assignments to lessen the appearance their motives might be divided?”
Rainey offered outcomes of ethical reviews, including these:
- “Los Angeles Times political reporter Ronald Brownstein recently began a new assignment as a columnist for the newspaper’s opinion and editorial pages after his bosses banned him from writing news stories about the presidential race. The Times was seeking to avoid the appearance of a conflict: Brownstein is married to Eileen McMenamin, chief spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain, a candidate for the Republican nomination.”
- “Nina Easton, Fortune magazine Washington bureau chief and Fox News analyst, said she would not write stories centering on McCain’s campaign, because her husband, Russ Schriefer, is plotting media strategy for McCain. When appearing on Fox, she said, she plans at least occasional disclaimers to tell TV viewers she is married to a McCain advisor.”
Rainey also quotes Tom Rosenstiel, a former Washington correspondent for Newsweek magazine and The Times. He said that in many cases, disclosure was not enough:
“You have the right to marry anyone you want, but you don’t have the right to cover any beat you want,” said Rosenstiel, now director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
I paraphrase Professor Lee Wilkins, editor of The Journal of Mass Media Ethics:
“Like it or not, the perception is that Stephen Smart is reporting about something in which his wife is a player — and CBC isn’t telling the public.”
After New York Times writer Linda Greenhouse added the comment published here, the newspaper apparently pulled access to the linked article. I find that action strange. I accessed it very early Thursday but by afternoon, it was gone although still showing in Google preview.
By late evening, the link is operative again. Thanks, NYT.