Former New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame found problems with Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller's appearance on Fox News Sunday given the news channel's history of ethical problems and parent company News Corp.'s recent political donations.
"If it were me, I wouldn't do it," Calame said Monday. "Is Fox News so biased and perceived to be so one-sided that you are contaminated by going on their air? I don't know. It is a close call."
Calame, also a former Wall Street Journal editor who spent 39 years at that paper, raised the issue of News Corp.'s recent million dollar donations to the Republican Governors Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said those actions further impact the credibility of all News Corp. outlets, not just Fox.
"It doesn't just affect Fox News, it affects the Journal and other News Corp. outlets," he said. "It creates a perception problem to have such large donations on the books. I am sure News Corp. is giving money to Democrats, but nothing like those amounts. I think it creates needless perception questions."
The appearance of a Times scribe on the Fox News show drew criticism from two other Times veterans, who found the mixing of the respected newspaper with Fox questionable.
"It is a bad idea, period," said Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "I think the format is calculated to make you say things you would like to put back in your mouth."
Jones spent nine years at The Times as its media reporter from 1983 to 1992 and also co-wrote a respected book on the paper, 'The Trust,' published in 1999.
He said Times reporters appearing on any cable talk show is a mistake, but singled out Fox, stating, "Fox is an organ of the Republican party. I think everyone who goes on there shares in being used by them for their entertainment value. Fox uses them to demonstrate they are open-minded by putting the Times on there. But does it show Fox is open-minded? I don't think so."
One former Times editor who requested anonymity also criticized the move: "I think it is really stupid," the former editor said. "They become a party in the partisan debate. I don't think the reader is served by that."
Former Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent weighed in on the issue years ago. In a February 6, 2005, piece, Okrent explained why TV appearances are "bad for reporters, and bad for The Times," citing Bumiller in one of the instances:
On television, dogged questioning can appear to be oppositional, even harassing. When White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller served as a panelist in a televised debate during last winter's primary season, some readers were convinced that her aggressive questioning of John Kerry and a head-to-head scrap with Al Sharpton demonstrated hostility. The same questions and the same attitudes deployed in a private interview could have produced answers that, in the paper, would have seemed absolutely proper and appropriate. But television can transform and distort reality; thinking you know a reporter from what you see on TV can be like thinking you know an actor from the way he behaves on stage.
In the same column, he also stated:
... reporters represent the standards of the entire paper's news gathering effort. It would be overkill for The Times to keep its reporters off television in all circumstances, but surely the top editors understand how publicity that can undermine reader trust is the worst kind of publicity a newspaper can get. They need to enforce a policy ensuring that no staff member will "say anything on radio, television or the Internet that could not appear under his or her byline in The Times."
Should be easy: those words are directly from the paper's "Ethical Journalism" handbook. But mild admonition is no insurance against reporters' getting ambushed, flattered or flustered into saying something an editor would strike in an instant. The only way the Times is going solve this problem is by making it a practice to regulate its reporters' appearances, and letting the paper - the reason everyone's here - speak for itself.
Times Executive Editor Bill Keller defended the appearance, but admitted the paper discourages staffers from appearing on "noisier cable shout-fests."
Following Media Matters coverage of Bumiller's appearance yesterday, Keller responded to a request for comment in an e-mail today, stating:
I missed Elisabeth's appearance. But, briefly: We've never banned our reporters from going on Fox. We do discourage them from going on the noisier cable shout-fests, whatever their political persuasion, because those shows try to enlist reporters as advocates or foils rather than as...reporters. And whenever our reporters go on TV we expect them to apply the same judgment to their on-camera interviews that they apply at The Times -- impartial, accurate, non-polemical.
Diane McNulty, a Times spokesperson, also responded with a statement defending the move, but echoed Keller's view about some cable shows, noting Times staffers "do avoid programs that emphasize punditry or reckless opinion-mongering"
Her entire statement:
Our reporters are not banned from giving interviews on any media. They do interviews frequently, across a wide variety of media, to talk about their stories, or subjects that figure in the coverage they provide. They do avoid programs that emphasize punditry or reckless opinion-mongering. Generally, as a rule of thumb, a staff member should not say anything on radio, television or the Internet that could not appear under his or her byline in The Times.
Bumiller did not respond to a request for comment, while current Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane declined to weigh in.