George Will’s Ethics: None of Our Business? and PU-Litzer Prizes for 2003




L


ate
December 2003 brought to light a pair of self-inflicted wounds to
well known columnist George Will’s ethical pretensions. He
broke an elementary rule of journalism—and then, when the


New
York Times

called him on it, proclaimed the transgression to
be no one’s business but his own. 



It
turns out that George Will was among a number of prominent individuals
to receive $25,000 per day of conversation on a board of advisers
for Hollinger International, a newspaper firm controlled by magnate
Conrad Black. Although Will has often scorned the convenient forgetfulness
of others, the

Times

reported, “Mr. Will could not recall
how many meetings he attended.” But an aide confirmed the $25,000
fee. 


Even
for a wealthy commentator, that’s a hefty paycheck for one
day of talk. But it didn’t stop Will from lavishing praise
on Black in print—without a word about their financial tie.
In early March 2003, Will wrote a syndicated piece that blasted
critics of President Bush’s plans to launch an all-out war
on Iraq. Several paragraphs of the column featured quotations from
a speech by Black. The laudatory treatment began high in the column
as Will referred to some criticisms of Bush policies and then wrote:
“Into this welter of foolishness has waded Conrad Black.” 


The
column did not contain the slightest hint that this wonderful foe
of “foolishness” had provided checks to fatten the columnist’s
assets at $25,000 a pop. 


But
Will claimed in a December interview that nothing was amiss. “Asked
in the interview if he should have told his readers of the payments
he had received from Hollinger,” a

New York Times

article
reported on December 22, “Mr. Will said he saw no reason to
do so.” 


The

Times

quoted Will as saying: “My business is my business.
Got it?” Yeah. We get it, George. The only question is whether
the editors who keep printing your stuff will get it, too. 


After
three decades as a superstar pundit, Will continues to flourish.
Several hundred newspapers publish his syndicated column,

Newsweek

prints two-dozen essays per year, and he appears each Sunday on
ABC’s “This Week.” 


The
syndicate with a very big stake in George Will cannot be indifferent
to the latest flap, but there’s obvious reticence to singe
the right-winged golden goose. Alan Shearer, the

Washington


Post

Writers Group editorial director and general manager,
said: “I think I would have liked to have known.” 


A
week later, via a letter in the

New


York Times

, a
more forthright response came from Gilbert Cranberg, former chair
of the professional standards committee of the National Conference
of Editorial Writers: “When a syndicated journalist writes
favorably about a benefactor, that is very much the business of
Mr. Will’s editors and readers.” 


Cranberg
quoted from the National Conference of Editorial Writers code of
ethics, which includes provisions that “the writer should be
constantly alert to conflicts of interest, real or apparent”—including
“those that may arise from financial holdings” and “secondary
employment.” Noting that “timely public disclosure can
minimize suspicion,” the code adds: “Editors should seek
to hold syndicates to these standards.” 


But
will they? George Will is a syndicated powerhouse. He has gotten
away with hiding other big conflicts of interest over the last quarter-century.
In October 1980, Will appeared on the ABC television program “Nightline”
to praise Ronald Reagan’s “thoroughbred performance”
in a debate with incumbent Jimmy Carter. But Will did not disclose
to viewers that he’d helped coach Reagan for the debate—and,
in the process, had read Carter briefing materials stolen from the
White House.




When,
much later, Will’s “debategate” duplicity came to
light, his media colleagues let him off with a polite scolding.
The incident faded from media memory. Thus, in autumn 1992, when
Will reminisced on ABC’s “This Week” about the 1980
Carter-Reagan debate, he didn’t mention his own devious role
and none of his journalistic buddies in the studio were impolite
enough to say anything about it. 


Will
has also played fast and loose with ethics in the midst of other
contests for the presidency. At the media watch group FAIR (where
I’m an associate), senior analyst Steve Rendall pointed out:
“During the 1996 campaign, Will caught some criticism for commenting
on the presidential race while his second wife, Mari Maseng Will,
was a senior staffer for the Dole presidential campaign. Defending
a Dole speech on ABC News (1/28/96), Will, according to

Washingtonian

magazine (3/96), ‘failed to mention…that his wife not only
counseled Dole to give the speech but also helped write it.’” 


In
2000, Will “suffered another ethical lapse,” Rendall recounts
in

Extra!

. The renowned columnist “met with George W.
Bush just before the Republican candidate was to appear on ABC’s
‘This Week.’ Later, in a column (3/4/01), Will admitted
that he’d met with Bush to preview questions, not wanting to
‘ambush him with unfamiliar material.’ In the meeting,
Will provided Bush with a 3-by-5 card containing a crucial question
he would later ask the candidate on the air.” 


George
Will has long been fond of denouncing moral deficiencies. Typical
was this fulmination in a March 1994 column: “Taught that their
sincerity legitimized their intentions, the children of the 1960s
grew up convinced they could not do wrong. Hence, the Clinton administration’s
genuine bewilderment when accused of ethical lapses.” 


In
what can be understood as a case of psychological projection, Will
derisively added: “It is a theoretical impossibility for people
in ‘the party of compassion’ to behave badly because good
behavior is whatever they do.” 


During
the past three decades, Will—who chose to become a syndicated

Washington Post

columnist in the early 1970s rather than
continue as a speech writer for Senator Jesse Helms—has been
fond of commenting on the moral failures of black people while depicting
programs for equity as ripoff artistry. In February 1991, for instance,
he wrote: “The rickety structure of affirmative action, quotas
and the rest of the racial spoils system depends on victimology—winning
for certain groups the lucrative status of victim.” 


In
subsequent years, not satisfied with his own very lucrative status,
Will made a quiet pact with corporate wheeler-dealer Conrad Black.
When exposed, Will compounded his malfeasance by declaring that
it was only “my business.” 


Words
that George Will wrote ten years ago now aptly describe his own
stance: “It is a theoretical impossibility” that he behaved
badly. “Good behavior” is whatever he does. Nice work
if he can get it. And he can. Got it? 


 



Announcing
the PU-Litzer Prizes for 2003 




T


he
PU-litzer Prizes were established to give recognition to the stinkiest
media performances of the year. The 12th annual PU-litzer Prizes
(chosen by me, in consultation with Jeff Cohen) for the foulest
media performances of 2003 are: 



Media Mogul of the Year:

Lowry Mays, CEO of Clear Channel 




W


hile
some broadcasters care about their programming, the CEO of the U.S.’s
biggest radio company (with more than 1,200 stations) admits he
cares only about the ads. The Clear Channel boss told


Fortune

magazine in March: “If anyone said we were in the radio business,
it wouldn’t be someone from our company. We’re not in
the business of providing news and information. We’re not in
the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply
in the business of selling our customers products.” 








Liberating Iraq Prize:




NBC’s Tom Brokaw 




I


nterviewing
a military analyst as U.S. jet bombers headed to Baghdad on the
first day of the Iraq war, NBC anchor Brokaw declared: “Admiral
McGinn, one of the things that we don’t want to do is to destroy
the infrastructure of Iraq, because in a few days we’re going
to own that country.” 







The More You Watch, The Less You Know Prize:




Fox News Channel 




A


ccording
to a University of Maryland study, most U.S. citizens who get their
news from commercial TV harbored at least one of three “misperceptions”
about the Iraq war: that weapons of mass destruction had been discovered
in Iraq, that evidence closely linking Iraq to Al Qaeda had been
found, or that world opinion approved of the U.S. invasion. Fox
News viewers were the most confused about key facts, with 80 percent
embracing at least one of those misperceptions. The study found
a correlation between being misinformed and being supportive of
the war. 







Clear It with the Pentagon Award:


CNN 




A


month after the invasion of Iraq began, CNN executive Eason Jordan
admitted on his network’s “Reliable Sources” show
(4/20/03) that CNN had allowed U.S. military officials to help screen
its on-air analysts: “I went to the Pentagon myself several
times before the war started and met with important people there
and said, for instance—‘At CNN, here are the generals
we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off
about the war’—and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them.
That was important.” 







Conservative Times for the “Liberal”
Media Award:




ABC News 




O


ver
the years, ABC correspondent John Stossel became known for one-sided,
often-inaccurate reporting on behalf of his pro-corporate, “greed
is good” ideology. He boasted that his on-air job was to “explain
the beauties of the free market” and received lecture fees
from corporate pressure groups, even speaking on Capitol Hill against
consumer-protection regulation. 


In
May, when Stossel was promoted to co-anchor of ABC’s “20/20,”
a network insider told

TV Guide

: “These are conservative
times…. The network wants somebody to match the times.” 







Coddling Donald Prize:




CBS’s Lesley Stahl, ABC’s Peter Jennings, &
others 




W


hen
news broke about Saddam Hussein’s capture, Stahl and Jennings
each interviewed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In step with
their mainstream media colleagues, both failed to ask about Rumsfeld’s
cordial 1983 meeting with Hussein in Baghdad on behalf of the Reagan
administration that opened up diplomatic and military ties between
the U.S. government and the dictator that lasted through seven years
of his worst brutality.

 







Military Groupie Prize:


Katie Couric, NBC’s “Today Show” 




W


ell,
Commander Thompson,” said Couric on April 3, in the midst of
the invasion carnage, “thanks for talking with us at this very
early hour out there. And I just want you to know, I think Navy
SEALs rock.”







Noblesse Oblige Occupation Award:


Thomas Friedman,





New York Times



 




I


n
a November 30 piece,


Times

columnist Friedman gushed, “This war (in Iraq) is the most
important liberal, revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project
since the Marshall Plan.” He lauded the war as “one of
the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad.”
Friedman did not mention the estimated 112 billion barrels of oil
in Iraq…or the continuous deceptions that led to the “noble”
enterprise. 






Norman Solomon
is co-author of

Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell
You

.