Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Help for the CBC on conflicts of interest

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.

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  1. I have also quoted Rosenstiel in relation to ethics

    I am not certain the local media knows the depth of disdain amongst their potential readership...I stress potential....the numbers of disenchanted grow exponentially with each of your columns, good work Norm

  2. I should add, the readership I speak of is not composed solely of a small group of academics (radical or otherwise).... or a few commenters on blogs(radical or otherwise)... or indeed of the authors of those blogs...but of "regular" people...lowly machinists like myself sitting around the lunchroom table at work....there are a lot of us that support your ethical and commonsense approach to issues...and that support is sure to become more vocal.

  3. Generous words and I thank you. What a blog like this one has is licence to initiate discussions that corporate media prefer to avoid, to protect advertisers or colleagues. For example, why has the subject of Stephen Smart's conflict of interest been left out of the mainstream? Because media members seldom criticize each other, publicly.

    Why did BC's corporate media almost ignore scandal that unfolded at the Cohen Commission? Politicians and bureaucrats were caught out in an organized campaign of lying and misinformation. I criticized directly a member of the Vancouver Sun editorial board for what I said was their "woefully inadequate" coverage and his pathetic response was, "Decisions about how to use our limited reporting staff are made by the editors in Vancouver."

    Good to know, eh? If you thought it might have been the janitors that did story assignments.

    One message to readers though is that you can help by spreading links to alternative media sites that you value. Blogs like mine, the one written by Alec Tsakumis, RossK and others are ignored by MSM, even by commercial alternative sites like The Tyee. They don't want to share their readers; a dumb strategy, I think.

    So, if you think the stuff found here is worth reading, pass the link to friends and acquaintances. Visits logged by my stat counter have grown steadily but it happens mostly by word of mouth. The promotion budget is zero.

  4. Ethics? CBC? Honesty? Nope - nada, not here.

    Sadly, Canada is now regarded as a joke, when it comes to its national media, crooks, shill, and alike have destroyed any reputation we had.

    Of course Mr. Smart should be reassigned; of course the CBC should be ethical and acknowledge that Smart's wife is a (highly paid)government PAB. But no, not Canada, no, no, no.

    In Canada, what passes for news, is what the government tells the papers to publish.

  5. Mr. Farrell, Since you're all for accuracy in journalism, I wish you had been more accurate in your account of my reporting on the U.S. Supreme Court Guantanamo case. You should note that my husband did NOT represent a party in the case (or any Guantanamo case.) He signed a brief that was filed by a public interest organization, the National Institute of Military Justice, on the general subject of habeas corpus and military commissions. I did NOT report on this brief. I DID, however, discuss the entire matter with my editors beforehand and received an all-clear from them. Your account leaves an opposite impression on each of these points.
    Linda Greenhouse

  6. Mr. Farrell's account includes a link to a complete airing of the matter by the NY Times public editor, so it is difficult to see how he can be faulted for leaving a false impression.

    If a writer sees a potential conflict or a chance that the audience will perceive a conflict to a degree that necessitates prior editorial discussion of the entire matter, as this case apparently did, the article should contain disclosure. It would not only be fair to the reader, it would help preclude attacks about conflict made by anybody, including conservative bloggers.

  7. As Shakespeare wrote in HAMLET, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

    Ms. Greenhouse states, "You should note that my husband did NOT represent a party in the case."

    Nor did I say that he did. I discussed her "reporting on a subject involving her spouse." I also made clear that her colleagues thought the conflict was "abstract" and I raised no claim that Ms. Greenhouse's reports were in fact biased. I also noted that she is an "award-winning journalist" with "America's pre-eminent newspaper." Not exactly harsh or mean spirited treatment that would cause anyone to disrespect the person.

    I chose the case of Ms. Greenhouse because it contrasted with the Stephen Smart situation. Indeed, I did not consider the Times writer to have offended ethics of journalism in any material way. The connection was minor and not ongoing.

    I did though want to demonstrate that her employer took criticisms seriously and responded publicly, sharing their thinking with readers and promoting consideration of the broad issue involved. Appropriate and professional responses, I think.

    The CBC case is substantially more egregious. it is a continuing situation that the CBC, so far at least, chooses to ignore. They failed to make public comment despite it being put into the public forum before I took the action that I did. (See Alex Tsakumis' writings on the matter.)

  8. SCUMBAGS. they will be exposed for what they are!

    many thanks for all your fine work.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Was me above...had to correct my sloppy-drums comment

    Thanks Norm.

    I very much agree with your suggestion that protesting from Ms. Greenhous was a little much.

    After all, I took it that you were using the situation that Ms. Greenhouse and the NYT found herself in as an example of how things should be done vs. how the CBC has done them re: the situation of the Smart/Scotts.

    Thanks again for being so diligent, thoughtful and fair-minded in regards to this important matter.


  11. Norm....I realize that you have a following due to your hard and informative research but I can only wonder in amazement how Linda Greenhouse was able to track down this article and respond in mere hours?

  12. There is much monitoring of the Internet by large organizations, particularly those sensitive to what is being said about them publicly. I see it by scanning the domains of people visiting this site. Taxpayers pay rather large amounts so that government politicians can keep track of what's being written on the Internet.

    The NYT writer probably has a standing Google alert on her own name. I use those alerts to track various subjects that interest me. Quite helpful in identifying new info being posted.

  13. You say that mere disclosure would be insufficient. I wonder if repeated disclosure - a tag at the bottom of any of Smart's stories disclosing the too cosy relationship - would raise enough awareness to shame the corporation into doing the right thing. I would also view it as a small step in the right direction.

  14. Here's another interesting fact about Stephen Smart that you or others may know, but was a surprise to me.

    Not only is Stephen Smart one of the few "accredited journalists" permitted by the BC courts (that I gather was hastily put in place at the BC Rail Corruption trial), Mr. Smart is listed as one of the people through whom the Accreditation Committee may be contacted. Or, he may actually be an Accreditation Committee member, the Court document specifying this is coy on this point. It's also unclear if this Accreditation Committee exists for all levels of BC's courts, or just the provincial court (as is all too common, this document is written in terms that are often distinctly (deliberately?) unclear).

    See page 21 of the document found at this link:

    I obtained this from reading North Van Grump's blog:

    In other words, Mr. Smart is a gatekeeper to information about what occurs in BC's courts. Given that his father is a BC Supreme Court judge, I'm not sure that's such a good idea. Are there really no other journalists available to fill this committee?

    I guess that's supposedly OK, but really, when this much power and connection is funneled through so few people, the public and professional observers (like bloggers) should take note.

    It's generally acknowledged that a separation of church and state is a necessary tenet of democracy. Surely it goes without saying that a separation between media and the state and the courts is also a necessity.

    It disturbs me that some people like Alex Tsakumis excuse Mr. Smart because he likes him personally, and that Mr. Smart is not held personally accountable for continuing in a position of obvious conflict. Yes, the CBC and Ms. Clark should rightly be accused of permitting these wrongs to go unattended, but so should Mr. Smart. He's a grown man who should be able to exercise some level of judgment and professionalism. Yet he does not, and no one is criticising him for continuing in these positions of conflict.

    People allude to some sort of Chinese Wall between Mr. Smart and his wife, and his father but knowing what I know from years of first-hand experience in BC's court system, that's just a laughable premise. It's an example of something lawyers like to call a "legal fiction".

    Lawyers and judges routinely exchange information (to put it politely). The gossip mill inside the legal industry is a robust, pulsing reality. I imagine it wouldn't be much different in the media industry.

    We should not delude ourselves that these people who occupy singular positions of unique power and access (Messrs. Smart and Ms. Scott) will be bothered by anything called ethics, propriety or professionalism. They can and do operate with impunity.

    I applaud your efforts to hold Mr. Smart's feet to the fire.



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