When Did `Media Ethics' Become An Oxymoron?

FOR years, comedian George Carlin has provoked laughs by pointing out oxymorons - seeming contradictions-in-terms such as jumbo shrimp and guest host and military intelligence.

Recent events suggest a new oxymoron: "media ethics." Only it's no laughing matter.

In theory, journalists are the public's watchdogs, shining a spotlight on the political and economic powers-that-be. But in practice, some of TV's leading news personalities have been taking their turns in the spotlight - as high-paid banquet and conference speakers for various economic interests.

In the Dec. 11 issue of TV Guide, reporter Marc Gunther exposed not only that industry lobby groups were lavishing big bucks on TV journalists, but that network TV executives didn't see much wrong with the practice. A CNN executive commented: "I'm proud when our guys can pick up a few extra bucks, and it's good exposure for CNN."

A few extra bucks? Not quite. TV news stars like Sam Donaldson and David Brinkley can earn $20,000 to $35,000 for a 40-minute speech.

"While viewers may not know it," Gunther reported, "the TV correspondent they rely on to explain health-care reform may have just pocketed a $5,000 lecture fee from a hospital group or insurance firm."

When ABC's "PrimeTime Live" deployed hidden cameras to expose 10 congressmen and their wives enjoying a free trip to Florida - paid for by an association of military contractors - the correspondent spoke critically of the "cozy relationship between public servants and special interests." But PrimeTime's co-host, Sam Donaldson, received $25,000 and first-class treatment from the same lobbying group when he addressed its 1989 convention.

Where are the TV segments on the "cozy relationship" between journalists and monied interests, and how it may affect reporting? Since 1991, members of Congress have been barred from accepting lecture fees. Not so for journalists.

The media analyst at ABC News is Jeff Greenfield. He says he won't speak to "partisan groups" - but he does give well-paid speeches to some of the most powerful media lobbies in Washington.

CBS medical reporter Bob Arnot has collected big fees for frequent speeches, including from associations of nursing homes and chain drug stores. He says he turns down invitations from insurance or drug firms, including an offer of $37,000 for a single talk. One wonders what the drug company thought it would be buying.

Before becoming White House counselor to President Clinton last May, pundit David Gergen dispensed pro-corporate viewpoints on PBS's "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour." Most of Gergen's income came from speeches - $700,000 from 171 talks in 16 months.

Cokie Roberts, who covers Washington for ABC and National Public Radio, makes more money in a few hours of speechifying - often to trade associations that lobby Congress - than most Americans earn all year.

When Roberts tells reporter Gunther that she would never adapt her views to suit a lecture sponsor, she has things backwards. It's largely because of her corporate-friendly views that she is so sought after by business groups offering big honoraria. (Corporate interests don't bestow such largess on critical commentators like Jim Hightower or Ralph Nader.)

If you need more evidence that "media ethics" is becoming an oxymoron, consider another recent disclosure: Turner Broadcasting System's $2,000 donation to the legal defense of Sen. Bob Packwood, a man covered regularly on CNN newscasts.

Turner's money helped Packwood retain one of Washington's priciest law firms in his defense against charges that he groped and sexually harassed two dozen women. The senator, said a Turner spokesman, "is a friend of the cable industry" - one who has long opposed cable regulation.

News of the donation angered many journalists at CNN - who learned about it only because a CNN producer was exploring a possible feature on how corporations help politicians fight their legal battles. It's an important story - but the feature never materialized on CNN.

Finally, there is CBS's curious selection of Rita Braver as its White House correspondent. She was chosen in August, while her husband, Robert Barnett, was one of Bill Clinton's personal attorneys. During the campaign, Barnett prepped Clinton for the debates by playing the role of George Bush.

CBS proclaimed there was no problem in giving the White House beat to a reporter whose spouse was one of the president's current lawyers. Only after questions persisted in the press did Barnett say he would phase out his legal work for Clinton.

What does it say about TV journalism that CBS was unfazed by such an obvious conflict of interest?

It's the kind of media ethics question that news consumers might ponder over a helping of "jumbo shrimp."

(Copyright, 1993, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)

Syndicated columnists Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon are regular contributors to Saturday's Media Beat column.

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