Media Ethics

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  • Leaked Fox Memo Says Online Polls "Do Not Meet Our Editorial Standards"

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Business Insider reported that the Fox News vice president for public-opinion research sent an internal memo “reminding television producers and the politics team that unscientific online polls ‘do not meet our editorial standards.’” 

    After the September 26 presidential debate, Fox News hosts and contributors repeatedly cited online polls, which largely favored Republican nominee Donald Trump, to defend Trump’s widely panned performance. Fox & Friends continued to hype online polls on September 28, the day after the internal Fox memo was sent, with co-host Brian Kilmeade stating that “the online polls show [Trump] winning an overwhelming margin.” In fact, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton dominated in scientific polls. 

    The September 27 memo, sent by Dana Blanton, Fox News’ vice president of public-opinion research, noted that “quick vote items posted on the web are nonsense, not true measures of public opinion.” Blanton wrote that "the sample obviously can't be representative of the electorate because they only reflect the views of those Internet users who have chosen to participate.” From the September 28 Business Insider article:

    A Fox News executive sent a memo Tuesday afternoon reminding television producers and the politics team that unscientific online polls "do not meet our editorial standards."

    Dana Blanton, the vice president of public-opinion research at Fox News, explained in the memo obtained by Business Insider that "online 'polls' like the one on Drudge, Time, etc. where people can opt-in or self-select … are really just for fun."

    "As most of the publications themselves clearly state, the sample obviously can't be representative of the electorate because they only reflect the views of those Internet users who have chosen to participate," Blanton wrote.

    As the Fox News executive pointed out, users who participate in such polls must have internet access, be online at the time of the poll, be fans of the website in question, and self-select to participate.

    "Another problem — we know some campaigns/groups of supporters encourage people to vote in online polls and flood the results," she wrote. "These quickie click items do not meet our editorial standards."

    At least three Fox News hosts cited unscientific online polls in the hours following Monday's presidential debate to suggest Donald Trump emerged as the winner of the political showdown.

    While Trump did, in fact, come out ahead in a slew of online polls, the polls were all unscientific, meaning the sample of participants did not accurately reflect the sample of viewers who watched the debate. Such polls are almost always discounted by professional pollsters and analysts.

    The only scientific survey conducted in the immediate aftermath was the CNN/ORC instant poll, which showed viewers thought Hillary Clinton handily defeated Trump. Respondents to a Morning Consult poll released Wednesday also said, by a 49% to 26% margin, that Clinton bested Trump in the debate.

    "News networks and other organizations go to great effort and rigor to conduct scientific polls — for good reason," Blanton wrote in the memo. "They know quick vote items posted on the web are nonsense, not true measures of public opinion."

  • Fox's Alternate Reality On New York City's Murder Rate

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    Fox News used a misleading chart featuring incomplete data to defend Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s false claim made during the first presidential debate that “murders are up” in New York City. Fox’s chart used data from 2014 to 2015 to demonstrate a rise in murder rates, but did not include complete data showing that murder rates in New York City are down in 2016 from the same point last year.

  • Wash. Post Op-Ed Exposes The Dangers Of Double Standard In Reporting On Trump Conflicts Of Interest

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Two former chief White House ethics lawyers, Richard Painter from the George W. Bush administration and Norman Eisen from the Obama administration, suggested that there is a media double standard evident in reporting on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. They noted that while Clinton’s “actual or apparent conflicts … have been disclosed and publicly vetted,” Trump’s potential conflicts of interest are significantly more “obscure, profound and dangerous.”

    Multiple investigations have revealed ethical issues regarding Trump: He used a charitable foundation in his name for personal gain, made an illegal donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R), and ran a fake “university” that defrauded thousands of people. Despite Trump’s unique ethical problems, media continue to devote an overwhelmingly unbalanced amount of coverage to (debunked) Clinton pseudo-scandals, obsess over her “optics”, and draw false equivalencies between the Clinton Foundation and fraudulent Trump Foundation. 

    In a September 21 op-ed, Painter and Eisen wrote that “a Trump presidency would be ethically compromised” by, among other things, his “refusal to disclose his tax returns,” a “lack of divestment” from Trump-branded properties, and “Trump’s propensity for dishonesty.” Painter and Eisen conclude that while Clinton’s potential and actual conflicts of interest “have been disclosed and publicly vetted,” “They are nowhere near as obscure, profound and dangerous as Trump’s.” From the op-ed (emphasis original): 

    As government ethics lawyers who have, respectively, counseled the most recent Republican president and the most recent Democratic one, we have watched Donald Trump’s campaign with increasing concern. We have come to believe a Trump presidency would be ethically compromised for the following reasons:

    Opacity. Trump’s refusal to disclose his tax returns shields critical information about his finances that is not found in the basic details he is required to provide on his candidate financial disclosure. 

    [...]

    Lack of divestment. Trump has said that if elected he would have his children manage his business and would not discuss business matters with them. That is not sufficient. Presidents for the past half-century have either converted assets to simple, conflict-free holdings such as U.S. government bonds, adopted blind trusts or done both. 

    [...]

    Domestic conflicts. Without considerable additional detail about Trump’s finances, we cannot be sure his decisions on domestic matters would be conflict-free. 

    [...]

    Foreign conflicts. Even more serious are the questions raised by Trump investments abroad. Those relate to some of the United States’ most important — and most sensitive — relationships, among them ones with Russia, China, India, South Korea and Turkey. 

    [...]

    Legal exposure. Because of Trump’s seeming unwillingness to set up a true blind trust, and the difficulty of his doing so, his potential foreign conflicts could raise immediate legal issues.

    [...]

    Veracity. Finally, we must address Trump’s propensity for dishonesty. It is disturbing that just 15 percent of his statements checked by PolitiFact are “true” or “mostly true.” No ethics program can work if the client is not honest.

    To be sure, counsel for a President Hillary Clinton would have to address actual or apparent conflicts posed by the Clinton Foundation, but those have been disclosed and publicly vetted. They are nowhere near as obscure, profound and dangerous as Trump’s. The ethics lawyer who would have President Trump as his or her client would face a far more daunting task than either of us — or any of our colleagues in recent years — has ever confronted.

  • Cable Networks Were "Played Like A Fiddle" By Donald Trump’s “20-Second” Birther Statement

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    A slew of media critics and commentators shamed cable news networks for being “played” into providing free live coverage of a campaign event for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. After Trump teased a “major announcement,” cable news networks provided wall-to-wall coverage in anticipation that Trump would address criticism over his role in pushing conspiracy theories that President Obama was not born in the U.S. Trump’s mere seconds-long statement “came only after a lengthy campaign event featuring military officers and award winners who have endorsed him,” turning it into “a de facto commercial for the GOP candidate.”

  • CNBC's Squawk Box and Fox’s Fox & Friends Are Friendly Ground for Donald Trump

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on September 12 visited two morning shows, Fox News’ Fox & Friends and CNBC’s Squawk Box, that have a history of giving him kid-glove treatment and softball interviews. Trump was likely expecting more of the same, and he was right.

    During his interview with Fox & Friends, Trump was asked about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s disclosure that she had been diagnosed with pneumonia after she left a 9/11 memorial event early, saying she was overheated. Co-host Ainsley Earhardt said the “press was kept in the dark for an hour and a half,” to which Trump said, “I really just don't know. I hope she gets well soon.” Trump also seemed to reference the baseless Clinton health conspiracy theories that have been spread by right-wing media figures, saying, “The coughing fit was a week ago, so I assume that was pneumonia also. I would think it would have been, so something is going on, but I just hope she gets well.”

    Co-host Steve Doocy later asked Trump about Clinton’s September 9 remark that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” views. Despite ample polling that backs up Clinton’s claim, Doocy framed it as “mistake,” asking Trump, “How big a mistake was this for her to say that on Friday night?” Co-host Brian Kilmeade claimed, “Hillary Clinton, in … making these comments and going to these high-ranking fundraisers, in many ways, she seems divorced from the everyday American.” Trump also claimed, drawing no pushback from the hosts, that he would be a “president of all the people,” even though he has repeatedly smeared Muslims, called Mexicans “rapists,” discriminated against African-Americans, and courted the white nationalist movement. Other topics in the interview included the NFL players protesting the national anthem and Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel, which the co-hosts were amazed that he was able to open “two years ahead of schedule.”

    Trump’s half-hour interview on Squawk Box was even friendlier. Co-host Joe Kernen, discussing Clinton’s health, asked Trump if he thought he was “probably correct” that Clinton “didn't have the stamina either mentally or physically to be president.” Kernen also told Trump, “I think your schedule has been more grueling than the one [Clinton’s] been pursuing, and that has been documented,” even though Trump goes back to his home in New York almost every night. Multiple journalists criticized Kernen for the claim. Trump agreed with Kernen, saying, “It has been, and it is a very tough schedule.” Kernen later encouraged Trump to continue bashing President Obama over his recent trip to Asia, asking, “Any additional comments on that?” and criticized The Wall Street Journal for a headline that focused on both Clinton’s and Trump’s health. Co-host Rebecca Quick also told Trump, “You’re known as a great negotiator.” Trump during the interview also baselessly suggested, without drawing any pushback, that Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen was directing policy to help Obama, even though the Federal Reserve is independently controlled. Trump also smeared Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) with the slur “Pocahontas,” without pushback.

    In neither interview was Trump asked about the September 10 report from The Washington Post that Trump’s charitable organization, the Trump Foundation, spent money for Trump himself and violated IRS rules. The shows also failed to ask Trump about the September 10 New York Daily News report that Trump’s company took $150,000 in government aid following the 9/11 attacks while claiming to have helped locals, even though that’s not what the program was designated for, and, as the News noted, “It’s unclear what, if any, help Trump provided to those affected by 9/11.”

    Trump’s softball interviews on these shows continue his cushy history with both Fox and CNBC. For years, Trump had weekly segments on Fox & Friends, giving him a platform to push his baseless claim that Obama isn’t an American citizen. The show’s co-hosts have praised themselves for giving a “ton of time” to Trump before his campaign, and Trump publically lauded the show at a campaign event. The show has repeatedly defended and pushed Trump’s rhetoric throughout his campaign. Trump also had a weekly segment with Squawk Box in 2012. During that time, Kernen pushed Trump’s birther claims by reading a fake quote to Trump from Obama that suggested he wasn’t born in the United States. Kernen in an interview following CNBC’s Republican primary debate in 2015 also allowed Trump to falsely claim, “My relationship with Hispanics is incredible.”

    Trump’s appearance on both shows also follows Trump’s retreat from most news outlets aside from Fox and CNBC. Fox media reporter Howard Kurtz reported in June that Trump was scaling back on interviews outside of Fox. According to a Media Matters review, since Trump’s much-criticized interview with ABC on July 31, in which he attacked a Gold Star family, his only appearance on one of the three broadcast networks was during last week’s NBC Commander in Chief Forum; he has made only one appearance on CNN; and he has not appeared on MSNBC.

  • NY Times Public Editor Apologizes For Discordant Coverage Of Trump's Immigration Speech

    Blog ››› ››› NINA MAST

    The New York Times' public editor apologized for the heavily edited story on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s trip to Mexico and immigration speech, which misleadingly portrayed Trump as “remak[ing] his image” on immigration when in reality Trump doubled down on his anti-immigrant policies.  

    Following Trump’s widely panned August 31 speech on immigration, The New York Times’ Patrick Healy wrote a front page article which praised Trump’s “audacious attempt ... to remake his image on the divisive issue of immigration,” drawing intense criticism from reporters who said that its author had “apparently watched a completely different immigration speech.”

    Subsequently, substantial edits were made to the article without acknowledgment of the changes, prompting public editor Liz Spayd to tweet that she was “looking for answers this morning on the unexplained redo.”

    In her explanation on the debacle, Spayd wrote that “For many readers, the story looked like a significant misportrayal of events” due to the fast-paced nature of the changing events. Spayd conceded that “other major news sites managed to hit the mark” and noted that “mistakes can have a genuine impact” on the newspaper's reputation. From the September 1 article:

    What happened? Why did the first version seem so off and why wasn’t The Times more transparent about the changes?

    I asked Carolyn Ryan, The Times’s political editor, for an explanation. “Trump acted jarringly differently in Phoenix than he did in Mexico, and we scrambled to reflect that, without obscuring the fact that he was backing away from his policy to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants,” she said. “I think readers were eager to see the fiery language and belligerent tone in Phoenix reflected quickly in the story, especially if they had just watched his appearance, and I understand that.”

    What that boils down to is: We were moving as fast as we could and the story changed on us.

    The flaw in hanging this simply on tight deadlines and fast-changing facts is that many other major news sites managed to hit the mark.

    [...]

    All of this may sound like tedious newsroom mechanics, but mistakes can have a genuine impact on The Times’s reputation among readers. In a climate where sinister motives are attached to every word and headline The Times produces, looking squarely at such episodes is a step worth taking.

  • Vox’s Matthew Yglesias Explains The Need For Journalists To Contextualize Clinton Stories

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Vox’s Matthew Yglesias used the example of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s charitable organization to show that journalists need to properly contextualize their reporting on Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation because such scrutiny “can be misleading” in a media environment where Clinton is presumed to be corrupt and “every decision she makes and every relationship she has is cast in the most negative possible light,” while others who pursue similar actions are given “the presumption of innocence.”

    Over the past few weeks, new information about Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation has been scandalized by the media, with coverage focused on “optics when outlets find no evidence of wrongdoing, and misrepresenting stories that lack proper context. The sensationalist reporting on Clinton has sparked serious criticism of the media coverage, illustrating double standards and flawed reporting.

    In an August 30 article, Yglesias argues that the media must properly contextualize stories about Hillary Clinton, because while “it’s natural to assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” in the instance of the Clinton Foundation, “the smoke … is not a naturally occurring phenomenon” but rather “the result of … editorial decisions by the managers of major news organizations to dedicate resources to running down every possible Clinton email lead.” He criticizes the media for extending the “presumption of innocence” to politicians like Colin Powell, who turned his charity -- which accepted corporate donations -- over to his spouse while he served as secretary of state, while they depict Hillary Clinton as “a uniquely corrupt specimen operating with wildly unusual financial arrangements and substantive practices” because “people ‘know’ she is corrupt”:

    The value of the presumption of innocence

    Because Colin Powell did not have the reputation in the mid- to late ’90s of being a corrupt or shady character, his decision to launch a charity in 1997 was considered laudable. Nobody would deny that the purpose of the charity was, in part, to keep his name in the spotlight and keep his options open for future political office. Nor would anybody deny that this wasn’t exactly a case of Powell having super-relevant expertise. What he had to offer was basically celebrity and his good name. By supporting Powell’s charity, your company could participate in Powell’s halo.

    But when the press thinks of you as a good guy, leveraging your good reputation in this way is considered a good thing to do. And since the charity was considered a good thing to do, keeping the charity going when Powell was in office as secretary of state was also considered a good thing to do. And since Powell was presumed to be innocent — and since Democrats did not make attacks on Powell part of their partisan strategy — his charity was never the subject of a lengthy investigation.

    [...]

    The perception that Clinton is corrupt is one of her most profound handicaps as a politician. And what’s particularly crippling about it is that evidence of her corruption is so widespread exactly because everyone knows she’s corrupt.

    Because people “know” that she is corrupt, every decision she makes and every relationship she has is cast in the most negative possible light. When she doesn’t allow her policy decisions to be driven by donors, she’s greeted by headlines like “Hillary Blasts For-Profit Colleges, But Bill Took Millions From One.”

    [...]

    Hillary Clinton is running for president. Her opponent, Donald Trump, is unusually weak and will probably lose. Scrutinizing her, her activities, and her associations is appropriate, and it’s difficult for any responsible citizen to argue that the likely next most powerful person on the planet is under too much scrutiny.

    But the mere fact of scrutiny can be misleading.

    It’s natural to assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But the smoke emanating from the Clinton Foundation is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It is the result of a reasonably well-funded dedicated partisan opposition research campaign, and of editorial decisions by the managers of major news organizations to dedicate resources to running down every possible Clinton email lead in the universe.

    Whatever one thinks of that decision, it’s at least appropriate to ask editors and writers to put their findings on these matters into some kind of context for readers’ benefit. To the extent that Clinton is an example of the routinized way in which economic elites exert disproportionate voice in the political process, that’s a story worth telling. But it’s a very different story from a one in which Clinton is a uniquely corrupt specimen operating with wildly unusual financial arrangements and substantive practices.

    Much of what we’ve seen over the past 18 months is journalists doing reporting that supports the former story, and then writing leads and headlines that imply the latter. But people deserve to know what’s actually going on.