Friday, June 22, 2007

Journalism and Conflict of Interest

Coincidentally, while I was writing about the nature of different types of objective research, MSNBC released an article on journalists making contributions to political campaigns. Apparently, I am supposed to believe that a journalist who makes a contribution to a campaign is somehow a worse journalist than one who does not make contributions to campaigns. Thus, I ought to have some sort of aversion to states of affairs in which the proposition, “Journalist J has contributed to political campaigns” is true.

I do not see the argument.

Ad Hominem

First, let us recognize that referring to a journalist’s campaign contributions as an argument against the credibility of his articles is an example of an ad hominem logical fallacy. Ad hominem fallacies are arguments are arguments against the person who made an argument as a way of discrediting his argument. In other words an ad hominem argument takes the form, “Because X is true of the person who gave a particular argument, his argument is flawed.”

In fact, there are only two legitimate ways to discredit an argument. (1) Show that one or more of the premises are false (or are less likely to be true than the person claimed them to be), or (2) show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Both of these arguments forms of refutation can take place without knowing a single fact about the person who made the argument. Any attempt to look at the person who made the argument to discredit the argument is a distraction – a waste of attention.

If I were running a news organization, my policy would be simple. I would expect my employees to make intelligent and well-informed contributions. I think that the world would more likely be a better place as a result of their efforts.

However, in each and every article they write for my publication, I would expect that those arguments to contain only true and verified premises, and conclusions that logically follow from those premises, or some sort of explanation as to why the conclusion does not follow (that is, why the argument – which the reporter is reliably citing from some source) is reasonably believed to fail.

If the reporter can live up to these standards, then I have no reason to get rid of her. I do not care about her campaign contributions – they are none of my business. On the other hand, if I discover that a reporter is leaving out relevant facts, inserting unsupported claims, refusing to question invalid implications, or similarly producing sloppy work, then I would fire her regardless of whose campaign she was contributing to.

At this point, I wish to add a quick disclaimer. I am making these claims from the point of view of an ethicist. If I were to put my business hat on, I would have to add additional concerns.

If a large group of potential customers are prone to be persuaded by ad hominem arguments – to see them as valid – then my news organization’s revenue is in jeopardy if I should be concerned about the appearance of a conflict in interest. I may have to ban political contributions by reporters for business purposes. It has nothing to do with the prohibition on political contributions making good moral sense. It has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of business decisions must be made on standards other than good moral sense.

This does not imply that organizations may behave immorally if it is profitable to do so. It only acknowledges that there is a huge set of options that are morally permissible – neither obligatory nor prohibited – that a person can choose from using something other than moral value.

Conflict of Interest

One of the arguments says that, if a journalist makes a contribution to a political campaign that this generates a conflict of interest. Once a journalist invests in a political campaign, he has a vested interest in the outcome of that campaign, and this may be in conflict with his interests as a reporter to present an objective and accurate assessment of what is happening.

We can see ‘conflict of interest’ in the business world. If a journalist owns stock in Exxon-Mobile, for example, and his future wealth depends on the well-being of that company, how will this affect his reporting on, for example, climate change or environmental regulations? The reporter himself profits from getting people to adopt a particular point of view in this case.

Even here, we are dealing with the application of an ad hominem fallacy. In this case, it is called, “Ad hominem circumstantial.” It argues that an agent’s circumstances – particularly an agent’s ability to profit from getting people to adopt a particular view – gives that agent a ‘reason for action’ to get people to adopt a particular view.

Here, too, the ultimate test is not whether the reporter has stock in the company, but whether the agent’s reports show signs of misrepresented claims, missing counter-arguments, and invalid or weak inferences. If we see these in a reporter’s work, we can ask why that happens. Here, we may answer our question by discovering that the reporter has a financial interest in getting people to adopt a particular view. However, the discovery of stock ownership does not prove that his articles are flawed in any way. It only provides a possible explanation for flaws that are found. (At which point, the reporter can be fired.)

This, however, applies to stock or some other arrangement where the object of the reporter’s story will somehow pay a benefit to the reporter that can be influenced by what the reporter causes others to believe. In the case of campaign contributions, we are talking about a reporter who has given money to a candidate, not one in which the candidate is giving money to the reporter.

We should assume that a reporter who is willing to give $500 to a candidate has a desire to see that candidate win. Just because the reporter is no longer permitted to give $500 to a candidate, this does nothing to the reporter’s desire to see that candidate win. The only thing that this prohibition changes is our ability to find out whether that reporter desires that the candidate win.

We also have reason to be concerned that a reporter, prohibited from donating money to a candidate’s campaign, may be more (rather than less) interested in finding some other way of acting on his desire. The only reason that a company’s prohibition restrains a reporter from giving a contribution is because it puts the desire to donate money as a means to helping the candidate win up against the even stronger desire to keep his job. However, the desire still exists, and it will seek other ways to express itself – to ‘make true’ a state of affairs where the candidate wins that will not put his job at stake. It is simple foolishness to think that a ban on campaign contributions will change any of these dynamics.

Strangely enough, while people are getting bent out of shape with respect to the possibilities that a reporter might be giving money to a candidate, we pay far less attention to the many ways in which a candidate can ‘pay’ reporters for favorable press. For example, the Bush Administration has been bribing reporters to write favorable stories since it took office – paying cooperative reporters a dividend in terms of access, leaks, and other valuable prizes.

These are bribes. It is as foolish to refuse to think of these things as bribes as it is to believe that a prohibition on cash contributions inhibits a reporter’s desire to see a particular candidate win. People have wondered for years why the White House Press Corps gave the Bush Administration a pass on the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq. The answer is actually quite simple. They were seeking various types of payoffs that the Bush Administration might give to a cooperative reporter.

Judith Miller was a cooperative reporter for the New York Times, writing articles that were favorable to the Bush Administration’s agenda for war in Iraq. When the Administration had the opportunity to leak a hot story that would promote their agenda, they contacted Judith Miller – the way Scooter Libby did when he wanted to leak the fact that Paul Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. In this case, the attempt to bribe Miller for some favorable news coverage backfired, but we can still see how the system is supposed to work.

I know that this is how the press business works. Candidates from both parties use what they have that may be of value to the press to manipulate the press into giving them what they want. However, even though this is natural, that does not make it right. It still will pay handsome dividends if we were to learn to condemn and punish, at least through our private acts if not by law, institutions where reporters are paid off for giving candidates favorable coverage.

What we have then is an attempt to cover up the mere illusion of favoritism and conflict of interest, while we protect and defend the fact of favoritism and conflict of interest.

The whole system seems a bit irrational to me.

1 comment:

About this blog: said...

The problem really isn't so much if there is a conflict of interest, but more if there is a perceived conflict of interest. An editor can have the strictest ethical standards but that doesn't mean the people who read their news publication know that, believe it, or care.

Not everyone follows the rules of logic like you do, or even uses common sense for that matter, and therefore can't grasp the difference between what someone does in their personal life verses their professional life. Really, it just LOOKS bad. Doesn't mean it actually is.

I guess if you had a very niche publication that catered to intellectually superior people written by morally incorruptible reporters this wouldn't matter. But in real-life application, if you want to keep your readers reading and therefore your income flowing, you're gonna want to ensure your publication is as credible as possible. And by "is" I mean "seems".

So while I agree that in theory good journalists can contribute money to whatever candidate they want, vote however they want and still show fairness and logic in writing articles, you missed a very large point in your argument.