Perks and Journalistic Ethics

Should reporters make full disclosure about access, gifts?

MY favorite briefcase - of Italian design and luxurious leather - was a present from a dictator: Suharto of Indonesia, to be exact. Members of the White House press corps, which I once was, used to get gifts like these whenever they accompanied presidents to nondemocratic nations.

The only thing reporters got from democratic governments was a hard time; the more democratic, the harder the time - which is as it should be. Ferdinand Marcos, by the way, gave the best presents of them all.

This quaint practice came to mind with recent reports of a fight at ABC. The network's "Prime Time Live" magazine news broadcast carried a report on congressional junkets financed by the Electronics Industry Association. A controversy ensued over whether co-anchor Sam Donaldson should disclose to viewers that he had taken a fee for a speech he gave the association several years ago.

One network executive reportedly argued that "it was unfair to bring Sam's speech before 30 million viewers and make it seem like he was part of the story when it was strictly apples and oranges." Roone Arledge, president of the news division, overruled the objections and in mid-broadcast ordered the disclosure for the end of the program.

Mr. Donaldson is by no means unique in this practice of journalists, accepting large honoraria from business and other interest groups in exchange for "speeches." One of the perks long known to go with a network assignment to the White House is a huge increase in speaking fees. Big-time print and broadcast reporters heatedly deny that these fees have any influence on their reporting. In the cases I've observed first hand, they are largely correct. Indeed, I have worked in close quarters with Donaldson an d have found him to be just about the most conscientious, fair, and aggressive reporter I've known.

But the real issue is full disclosure. And it seems appropriate that viewers of news broadcasts deserve to know that the reporter got slipped maybe $20,000 some time back for an hour's worth of remarks before the group that is the subject of the news report. That $20,000 - the going rate for top journalists on the lecture circuit - may have had no more corrupting effect than the petty bribes Suharto handed out. But both practices ought to stop and, failing that, need to be disclosed.

MORE difficult to discern or reveal are the relationships that prominent journalists develop with people they're supposed to be covering. Many journalists, from the White House on down to City Hall, often live near, socialize with, romance, marry, and even exchange jobs with people they're supposed to be covering. One network journalist - one of the best reporters I've ever known - daily covers national economic and fiscal policy while living with the chairman of the Federal Reserve. In network circles, this is viewed as a good thing. It may be, in terms of access. But who can argue that the viewer doesn't deserve to know that?

Pentagon spokesman Pete Wiliams, who led the press down the primrose path through two wars, is now joining a network as a news correspondent. What a lot of news organizations seem to be forgetting is that the coin of our realm is not access, or popularity with newsmakers. It is credibility with those who read and view the news. Once we've spent that, we have nothing.

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