Ethics

Issues ››› Ethics
  • NBC News Is Struggling To Report On Its Own Trump Problem

    NBC's Financial Relationship With The President-Elect Puts Its Reporters In An Impossible Situation

    Blog ››› ››› KATIE SULLIVAN

    NBC and its parent company, Comcast/NBCUniversal, have put the network’s news division in an impossible situation by entering into a financial agreement with the next president of the United States. As NBC News reporters grapple with the announcement that President-elect Donald Trump will remain an executive producer on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, many aren't discussing the intolerable conflicts of interest this business arrangement poses to NBC. In this deal, NBC will have a fiduciary relationship with the president, making it financially invested in Trump’s reputation -- a situation that threatens to compromise the news division’s political reporting. The arrangement is now providing a case study in how conflicts of interest affect the quality and the integrity of reporting.

    Variety reported on December 8 that Trump will stay on as an executive producer of Celebrity Apprentice. As Media Matters pointed out, because of the business relationship, NBC is now financially invested in Trump's reputation and will have an incentive to weigh aggressive reporting about Trump across its news platforms against what the network mighty lose in revenue if Trump's reputation is damaged. The arrangement implicates NBC News, CNBC, and MSNBC.

    NBC News’ reports on the announcement have generally presented the conflict as a possible problem for Trump, but not for NBC -- and that’s when the network reports on the deal at all. NBC’s flagship Sunday political show, Meet the Press, failed to address the story entirely on the December 11 edition. Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, who also anchors the weekday program Meet the Press Daily, said on December 8 that Trump being “connected to The Apprentice is not news to the American public.” NBC correspondents Kristen Welker and Peter Alexander both characterized the deal as a conflict for Trump, while downplaying NBC’s own conflict. Welker noted that there is “new scrutiny of the president-elect's decision to stay on as executive producer of The Apprentice,” referring to the deal as “Trump’s business entanglements,” and adding, “NBC Entertainment declined to comment, noting MGM owns and produces the show.” Joe Kernen, host of CNBC’s Squawk Box, told a critic, “Don’t bring it to your conflict thing again.” MSNBC’s Ari Melber argued that Trump remaining an executive producer isn’t a conflict, “it’s just … weird,” and made a point of saying that “NBC Entertainment is a separate division of our company” from NBC News.

    MSNBC reporters have also tried to compare Trump’s deal with NBC to Obama receiving royalties for his books. But, as The Associated Press explained, Obama’s “books’ publishers are not financially tied to news divisions.”

    By contrast, other media outlets have noted NBC’s numerous conflicts in this arrangement. On ABC’s This Week, host George Stephanopoulos asked incoming Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus: “The FCC regulates NBC corporate. Corporations could try to curry favor with the president by placing their products on the show, buying advertising. Isn't that an issue?” CNN’s Dylan Byers explained that the business relationship “presents a thorny situation for Comcast/NBCUniversal, which controls the [product integration] deals” that companies make with Celebrity Apprentice, which, according to Byers, often range from $5 million to $9 million. Trump personally profits from those deals, making NBC the middleman through which companies can “curry favor” with the president. And Fortune magazine noted that NBC was already criticized in October “for reportedly sitting on the Access Hollywood footage from 2005 that showed Trump boasting about committing sexual assault,” which the network reportedly withheld due to “fear of spurring yet another lawsuit from Trump.”

    Media and ethics experts have also pointed out the untenable situation NBC has created for itself. Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive and journalism professor, called the arrangement “mind-boggling” and said it’s “a clear conflict of interest” to have a company “that has a news division …. covering the president of the United States” when he “has an interest in a show on that network.” Aly Colon, a journalism ethics expert, noted people’s desire to “believe in an independent news division not affected by business ties,” saying, “A lot of people find it difficult to believe there is a wall between news and entertainment.” And NPR’s David Folkenflik pointed out that, as president, Trump will be appointing the regulators tasked with scrutinizing the media, which NBC has an obvious interest in. Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert explained on MSNBC’s AM Joy that “No amount of disclosure is enough here. Is NBC for the next four years, every time they report on Trump, [going to] say, ‘By the way, our parent company has a financial relationship with Donald Trump’?” Boehlert also asked, "what if a company, in theory, says, 'Let's give The Apprentice $5 million and Trump could get a cut of that?' I mean, we're just paying off the president.”

    NBC cut ties with Trump last summer, declining to air his Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants and stating that the network did not want to be associated with Trump because his bigoted statements had defied its core values. What’s unclear now is whether NBC believes Trump’s values have changed or whether the network believes such statements became acceptable with his election.

    Sign Media Matters’ petition telling NBC to dump Trump.

  • AP: Ethics Experts Concerned Over NBC’s “Mind-Boggling” Ties To Trump

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The Associated Press highlighted how President-elect Donald Trump’s financial ties to NBC have created new concerns among ethics experts about conflicts NBC might face when “a company that has a news division is covering the president of the United States who has an interest in a show on that network.”

    Trump will remain an executive producer of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice, creating an unprecedented conflict of interest between a sitting president and a major news outlet. NBC News, MSNBC, and CNBC will be reporting on President Trump at the same time that their corporate parent will stand to benefit from Trump’s reputation and popularity. This places NBC's journalists in an untenable position. 

    In a December 9 article, The Associated Press highlighted ethics experts and journalism professors who voiced concern over NBC’s ties to Trump. Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive and journalism professor, explained the problem, calling it “a clear conflict of interest to me that a company that has a news division is covering the president of the United States who has an interest in a show on that network.” She termed the arrangement “mind-boggling on so many levels.” Aly Colon, an “expert in journalist ethics,” noted people’s desire to “believe in an independent news division not affected by business ties.” From the AP:

    Donald Trump's continued stake in television's "Celebrity Apprentice" adds to questions about potential conflicts between his personal and public responsibilities, while raising new ones about NBC.

    If it continues, journalists at NBC News will be covering a president for a corporation whose entertainment division retains ties to the man. The reality show, which returns to NBC's schedule on Jan. 2 with Arnold Schwarzenegger replacing Trump as host, includes the president-elect as one of its executive producers.

    [...]

    "It's just so mind-boggling on so many levels," said Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive who taught journalism at Stony Brook University. "It is a clear conflict of interest to me that a company that has a news division is covering the president of the United States who has an interest in a show on that network.

    "How do you remain unbiased?" she asked. "The onus is on NBC to say, 'we can't do this.'"

    People want to believe in an independent news division not affected by business ties, said Aly Colon, an expert in journalist ethics at Washington & Lee University who once worked in NBC's standards department. He said he's sure the issues are being considered at NBC.

    "A lot of people find it difficult to believe there is a wall between news and entertainment," Colon said.

    The liberal watchdog Media Matters for America on Friday launched a petition drive calling on NBC to cut ties with Trump, saying reporters are put in an untenable spot and that no amount of disclosure is enough when a network is financially invested in the president.

    Sign Media Matters’ petition telling NBC to Dump Trump.

  • CNN: Trump’s Apprentice Deal With NBC Gives Foreign Companies An Opportunity To “Curry Favor” With Trump 

    NBC Is Providing Foreign Companies, Defense Contractors And Private Equity Firms With A Way To Pay President Trump 

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to remain an executive producer of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice as president “could provide him with a cut of the money generated by NBC's product integration deals for the show,” and provides ways for advertisers, foreign companies, defense contractors and private equity firms to “curry favor” with Trump, according to CNN.

    NBC’s decision to retain Trump as an executive producer on The Celebrity Apprentice raises a number of conflict of interest concerns that include advertisers' ability to pay Trump while they have business in front of government, as well as NBC’s financial investment in Trump’s reputation. For these reasons, Media Matters is calling on NBC to end this insurmountable problem and cut ties with President-elect Trump.

    On December 9, CNN’s Dylan Byers quoted “a Hollywood source with direct knowledge” of Trump’s contractual arrangement with NBC to report that “if that arrangement is still in place, it is now a potential avenue of influence for companies.” Reality shows like The Celebrity Apprentice offer “product integration,” better known as product placement, to any number of advertisers, including ”brands owned by foreign companies; private equity firms, which have done deals with the show before; or defense contractors that also produce consumer goods.” In 2011, Byers reports, the integrations cost “between $5 million and $9 million” per episode. Assuming Trump’s deal with NBC has not changed, “the companies buying product integrations on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ will be indirectly paying money to the President-elect.” Byers’ source remarked that "If an advertiser wants to curry favor with Trump, that's the way to do it.":

    For years, Trump has received a portion of the revenue from the show's product integration deals, the source said. If that arrangement is still in place, it is now a potential avenue of influence for companies that want to get the ear of Trump and his administration, and presents a thorny situation for Comcast/NBCUniversal, which controls the deals.

    "If an advertiser wants to curry favor with Trump, that's the way to do it," the source said.
    That could include brands owned by foreign companies; private equity firms, which have done deals with the show before; or defense contractors that also produce consumer goods. Any company like these might have a vested interest in getting in good favor with the 45th President of the United States.

    In reality television, product integration refers to deals in which advertisers pay to place their products in a show. When contestants on "Celebrity Apprentice" are tasked with directing a commercial for a new OnStar product, creating a retail strategy for LifeLock or repackaging Omaha Steaks, that is product integration. In 2011, Ad Age reported that advertisers were paying between $5 million and $9 million to get their product integrated into a single episode.

    The source could not confirm that the terms of the arrangement had not changed. NBC, the network that airs "Celebrity Apprentice," did not respond to requests for comment. MGM, the company that owns the show, declined comment.

    [...]

    There was one agreement covering both "The Apprentice" and "Celebrity Apprentice," the source said. If that deal is still in place, the companies buying product integrations on "Celebrity Apprentice" will be indirectly paying money to the President-elect.

    Tell NBC to Dump Trump.

  • When NBC Dumped Trump Because He Violated Their Core Values

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The announcement that President-elect Donald Trump will remain an executive producer on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice opens up a series of conflicts of interest for both Trump and NBC News. It also defies NBC’s previous claim that they did not want to be associated with Trump because his bigoted statements had defied the network’s core values.

    Trump began his presidential campaign with a blistering, widely-denounced attack on Mexican immigrants. In his June 16, 2015, presidential announcement speech, he claimed that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” instead claiming that most immigrants were rapists or drug dealers.

    Two weeks after that speech, NBC announced that they were “ending its business relationship” with Trump due to what it termed his “derogatory statements” about immigrants. The network announced that they would no longer air the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, which were part of a joint venture between the network and Trump and were scheduled to run during the presidential election. According to the statement, “At NBC, respect and dignity for all people are cornerstones of our values.”

    At the time, the network stated that Celebrity Apprentice “is licensed from Mark Burnett's United Artists Media Group and that relationship will continue.” But NBC News reported that this was because “Trump ceased his involvement with the reality show during the presidential bid.” Now, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway is suggesting that Trump might actively work on the show as president in his “spare time.”

    In any case, since NBC released their statement cutting ties with Trump, he has not demonstrated that he shows “respect and dignity for all people.” Instead, he has continued to denigrate people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and women. In fact, NBC fired Billy Bush over the former Access Hollywood host’s role in an open mic tape that featured Trump admitting to sexual assault. NBC didn’t want a business relationship with someone who laughed at such comments, but apparently has no qualms with the man who said them.

    It certainly raises questions about what NBC really considers “cornerstones of our values.”

    Tell NBC: Dump Trump

  • Morning Joe Gets Scoops On Trump’s Transition While Its Hosts Reportedly Advise Him

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    MSNBC Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have reported multiple scoops on President-elect Donald Trump’s transition efforts and potential cabinet selections since the election. The exclusives come as the pair, who often give Trump friendly coverage, have confirmed that they regularly speak directly to Trump and have reportedly been advising him, including on his cabinet selections. These reports raise questions about the journalistic ethics surrounding Morning Joe’s Trump coverage, as well as the extent of the hosts’ relationship with the president-elect.

    Since the election, Scarborough and Brzezinski have frequently cited “sources” when reporting exclusive details about Trump and his transition efforts. On November 22, Brzezinski claimed that “a source with direct knowledge of Donald Trump's thinking” told Morning Joe that Trump would “not pursue any investigations into Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server and the Clinton Foundation” because Trump believes she had “‘been through enough.’” On November 28, Brzezinski reported that “sources” told MSNBC that Trump was “furious” at his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, for publicly criticizing Mitt Romney, a former Trump critic and possible candidate for secretary of state. Scarborough a few minutes later on the show said Trump told him personally he did not want Romney to apologize for his previous criticism. The next day, Scarborough reported that Conway was the “only noise internally, based on all of my sources” within Trump’s transition team, opposing Romney. And on December 6, Brzezinski claimed that “sources familiar with Trump's thinking” told the show that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was “not in serious contention” for the secretary of state position, retired Gen. David Petraeus was “no longer a serious candidate,” and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was also “fading” in contention for the position.*

    Meanwhile, The New York Times reported on November 19 that Trump “often seeks out” advice from Scarborough. And in late November, Brzezinski met Trump’s daughter Ivanka for coffee at Trump Tower. Politico also reported that Scarborough “tells Trump his opinions on Cabinet picks, both in private and on air.” Scarborough, speaking with Politico, confirmed that he and Brzezinski “‘talk to Trump a few times a week,’” claiming that they “‘say the same thing to him on the phone that we say publicly on the show.’” These reports raise the question of whether the hosts are reporting scoops on Trump’s cabinet that they themselves have advised on.

    This apparent arrangement also comes as Scarborough and Brzezinski continue to defend Trump, a pattern they exhibited throughout much of the presidential campaign and for which multiple media figures have criticized them. As Politico noted, the hosts seem to have a “symbiotic relationship” with Trump, where “Scarborough and Brzezinski need the access to Trump and his inner circle to break news, provide analysis and exert influence,” and Trump “needs the pair for their audience.”

    * The piece has been corrected to clarify that Brzezinski said retired Gen. David Petraeus was "no longer a serious candidate" for the secretary of state position. It originally inaccurately quoted her as saying he was "not a serious candidate” for the position.

  • Morning Joe Hosts, After Carrying Water For Trump And Meeting Him Privately, Aghast That Anyone Questions Their Impartiality

    ››› ››› KATIE SULLIVAN

    Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, co-hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, have met privately with Donald Trump while Scarborough is reportedly advising the president-elect, yet both still reject media criticism of their overly positive coverage of the former reality show celebrity. On the November 29 edition of Morning Joe alone, the hosts carried water for President-elect Trump on five separate topics, including criticizing journalists for scrutinizing his extensive conflicts of interest and reporting on Pro-Trump “fake news.”

  • Former Members Of Senate Credentialing Committee Alarmed At Bannon's "Shady" Relationship With Breitbart

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Breitbart.com’s request for permanent Capitol Hill press credentials is sparking concern from former members of the committee that approves those passes, who say Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon’s new White House advisory role could pose a "shady" conflict.

    Politico recently reported that Breitbart, the far-right conservative website headed by Bannon for years, had applied for permanent credentials with the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery, which decides who may receive the coveted credentials.

    The request comes as Bannon, the recent chair/CEO of Breitbart, was named chief strategist and senior counselor for President-elect Donald Trump. (Bannon has been "on leave" from the site since he left to help head Trump's campaign in August.)                 

    The Standing Committee’s policy expressly forbids any news organization with a conflict of interest to receive a credential. This week, Media Matters issued an open letter calling on the committee to reject the credential request "based on Breitbart’s disqualifying inability to demonstrate editorial independence as required" by the committee rules. 

    Given Bannon’s ties to Breitbart, former members of the committee -- which is comprised of Congressional correspondents -- fear it could pose a problem. They requested anonymity due to concerns about retaliation.

    “You would be terribly concerned about conflict of interest and how to guard against this,” said one former committee member. “On the face of it, the question people have is, ‘are we comfortable with the fact that someone in the White House now seems to have potentially this role influencing what appears in a publication?’ You can’t know that until you look at the structure. My first question would be can he reach over any type of firewall in terms of what stories are covered?

    “You have to be editorially independent from anything that’s not a news organization and by virtue of having someone in the White House and having editorial influence over Breitbart, if he did, he would violate the standard.”

     Another former committee member echoed that view.

    “That would be something to be raised by the committee, it won’t be just rubber-stamped for it I assume,” the former member said. “You need to know if there is a clear separation from the ownership. The concern they normally have is if there is a potential for conflict of interest between what the ownership is doing and the reporting.”

    The person added, “If he took a leave of absence, you would have to take his word for it that he would not be interfering, they would have to look at it carefully. I don’t think they would take his word for it. It seems likely they would take a hard look and make sure it is correct.”

    A third former committee member said a Breitbert credential “sounds a little shady.”

    “It sounds like something that if we were on the standing committee, we would have to look at closely,” the correspondent said. “That is the biggest role of the committee, making sure there is that firewall. … The White House and Congress are obviously very closely related, if you are someone who might benefit from what happens on one of those sides and can benefit financially from one of those things it can get really mixed up.”

    Another former committee member said this was the first such conflict to arise in their time in the congressional press corps.

    “I’ve never seen a situation where somebody in the administration had a connection to a news organization that is seeking a credential,” the former member said. “The concern is that if it’s not an independent news organization, the person would be acting as an agent for the administration on the hill. You don’t want someone acting as a lobbyist.”

  • “Nixonian”: Journalists React To Trump’s Declaration That As President, He “Can’t Have A Conflict Of Interest”

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT

    During an on-the-record meeting with The New York Times staff, President-elect Donald Trump declared that there is no legal need for him to free himself of his international business affairs to avoid conflicts of interest, flatly saying that presidents “can’t have a conflict of interest.” Journalists responded to Trump’s declaration by calling it “Nixonian,” referencing former President Richard Nixon’s comment to journalist David Frost that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

    Times reporters live-tweeted the meeting between Trump and newspaper staff, where he was asked about the numerous conflicts of interest he is facing with his business ties and his plans to turn over his businesses to his children while simultaneously involving them in his White House transition. In his replies, Trump said it’s not necessary for him to put his businesses in any kind of trust and that, as president, he “can’t have a conflict of interest” -- echoing an argument made by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani that financial conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the presidency.

    Journalists responded to Trump’s declaration by calling it “Nixonian” in nature, a reference to President Richard Nixon telling David Frost in a May 1977 interview that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal”:

    In fact, legal experts across the political spectrum have warned that presidential conflicts of interest of this type “could violate a crucial constitutional protection against corruption and influence by other governments,” specifically the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution -- “essentially an antibribery rule, which forbids public servants from accepting anything of value from foreign powers without explicit congressional approval.”

  • News Networks Sidelined Trump's Conflicts Of Interest Until His Election

    Blog ››› ››› ROB SAVILLO

    The broadcast networks’ flagship evening news programs failed to inform their viewers about the inherent conflicts of interest a potential Donald Trump presidency would bring in the months leading up to Election Day, and have not given the subject the urgency it deserves in the wake of his election, according to a Media Matters review.

    Between September 14 and Election Day, the networks only aired approximately seven minutes of stories about or at least mentioning a conflict of interest. In the week after the election, they aired approximately 14 minutes -- but only half of that explicitly called the issues “conflicts.”

    Trump has said throughout his campaign and following his election that he intends for his children to run his business empire while he is president. But on September 14, Newsweek reported that if Trump and his family don’t cut ties to the family’s business conglomerate, Trump would “be the most conflicted president in American history, one whose business interests will constantly jeopardize the security of the United States” due to the Trump Organization’s relationships and financial entanglements with foreign interests.” Responding to that story, Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told Media Matters that the only way to avoid serious conflicts of interest would be for Trump and his family to sell all of their holdings in the Trump Organization. Painter also stressed that the issue was a “serious problem” that warrants increased media attention.

    Painter sounded some of the earliest alarms about Trump’s conflicts. Speaking with Mother Jones in June, he explained that the idea of a sitting president holding any debt owed to an entity that the government regulates should disturb the public: “[H]aving a president who owes a lot of money to banks, particularly when it's on negotiable terms -- it puts them at the mercy of the banks and the banks are at the mercy of regulators.”

    The flood of potential and actual conflicts of interest have been made manifest following Trump’s election. A Washington Post investigation recently revealed a sprawling, globe-trotting Trump empire, showing that the president-elect’s real estate, management, and branding companies have business interests in at least 18 countries or territories. The Post also reported over the weekend that foreign diplomats had flocked to an event at the Trump International Hotel, located just a few blocks from the White House, seeking “to curry favor or access with the next president.”

    The New York Times reported that developers of Trump Towers Pune, located in Pune, India, flew to New York last week to meet with the Trumps during the president-elect’s initial stages of his transition to the White House. Pranav R. Bhakta, a consultant who helped Trump establish a foothold in the Indian market five years ago, told the Times, “To say, ‘I have a Trump flat or residence’ -- it’s president-elect branded. It’s that recall value. If they didn’t know Trump before, they definitely know him now.”

    These recent events should have come as no surprise, yet the network news hardly mentioned the conflicts of interest inherent in Trump’s global business ties before or after the election.

    Media Matters looked at ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir, CBS’ Evening News with Scott Pelley, and NBC’s Nightly News with Lester Holt for reports on Trump’s conflicts of interest -- including the Trump Organization’s ties to foreign governments or businesses, Trump promoting his own businesses through the presidency, plans for Trump’s children taking over the Trump Organization through a “blind” trust or attempting to access security clearances, and Trump’s children using their access to the president-elect to promote their own businesses -- starting from Newsweek’s September 14 article.

    From then until Election Day, the networks spent approximately seven minutes on stories about or at least mentioning a conflict of interest. NBC aired a three-minute segment, and ABC aired a three-and-a-half-minute segment. Both were about Trump using his campaign to promote his own businesses; however, neither explicitly pointed to potential upcoming conflicts of interest should Trump win the election. NBC briefly mentioned the Newsweek report in a segment about corruption in the Trump Foundation, and the night before the election, the network again briefly mentioned the conflict of interest of Trump’s business ties for about eight seconds.

    In the week after the election, the networks have devoted more coverage to these conflicts of interest, but it hasn’t been enough. From November 9 to 16, the networks spent approximately 14 minutes on stories about or at least mentioning a conflict of interest, but only half of those explicitly called them conflicts. They spent a total of about seven minutes on Trump’s foreign business ties, six minutes on Trump’s children helping with the president-elect’s transition or vying for security clearances, and two minutes on Ivanka Trump using a photo of herself in Trump’s recent 60 Minutes interview to sell a bracelet that retails for over $10,000.

    Methodology

    Media Matters searched news transcripts from the Nexis database for mentions of any variations of “conflict,” “corrupt,” “organization,” “trust,” “business,” “interest,” “cabinet,” “transition,” or “divest” within the same paragraph as “Trump” for ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir, CBS’ Evening News with Scott Pelley, and NBC’s Nightly News with Lester Holt from September 14 through November 16. We reviewed video to determine length of coverage.