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Presidential race coverage raises conflict issues

By David Bauder
AP Television Writer / December 7, 2011
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NEW YORK—Political consultant Dick Morris recently disclosed on Fox News Channel that some of the Republican presidential candidates that he talks about on the air have paid for advertisements in a newsletter he sends out to subscribers.

Columnist and ABC commentator George Will's wife works for Rick Perry. Fox host Greta Van Susteren's husband advised Herman Cain. NPR's Michele Norris left as host of "All Things Considered" in October because her husband began working for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

Such entanglements are laying bare the close ties between the media and political world during this campaign season while raising familiar questions: How much should consumers be clued in to preserve the sense that news organizations are acting independently? And what should journalists do to avoid the perception of a conflict?

There are no shortages of opinions on the topic and no one correct answer, though advocates for ethics in journalism tend to lean toward full disclosure of conflicts caused by relationships between politicians and on-air reporters or commentators.

"They may have an opinion, but they should still, I believe, have accuracy and fairness as their guidepost in the same way as other reporters," said Bob Steele, a journalism ethics professor at DePauw University.

On Monday, Morris became the latest to outline publicly his connections to the candidates he discusses on air, saying that Cain, who just suspended his campaign, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich all have paid for ads in the free political newsletter he sends to nearly a half-million subscribers.

Morris said he does no paid political consulting work for candidates within the United States and has given free political advice to Cain, Bachmann, Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

"I drown them with advice," he said. "I'm constantly emailing them."

Morris' comments during Sean Hannity's prime-time program came a few hours after The Associated Press questioned him and Fox programming executive Bill Shine about the ads. Though he acknowledged the ads, Morris did not address questions from the AP about their propriety, in light of his commentator role, and did not immediately respond to requests for comment. And Shine declined requests for an interview about the topic.

The liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America, which subscribes to the newsletter, says it saw at least seven ads from July through October that stated they were paid for by Cain's campaign.

Morris, during some Fox appearances, expressed support of Cain's campaign and doubt about those who accused Cain of inappropriate sexual behavior. He said on Fox, "I look forward to her spread in Playboy" after Sharon Bialek publicly accused Cain of groping in 1997. Morris also dismissed Ginger White's claim that she had a long-running affair with the married Cain.

How media outlets handle such issues vary.

CNN recently removed Cornell Belcher, a political pollster, from its list of paid political commentators after he began work for the Obama campaign. Belcher still occasionally appears on CNN, but he is identified each time as being a part of the Obama team, spokeswoman Christa Robinson said.

"As a news organization that doesn't take sides, it's important to be transparent and disclose the relevant work of our contributors and guests so that viewers will know the background and possible motivations of those on our air," she said.

When he was working at MSNBC in 2010, prime-time host Keith Olbermann was suspended for two days after violating a network rule on political donations (he gave $2,400 apiece to three Democratic congressional candidates). Olbermann later complained that the rule was "probably not legal" and left MSNBC two months later.

NPR's Norris is taking a break from "All Things Considered" until Election Day next year. She said she'll continue to report for the organization, but not on campaign news.

Prompted to take care of some "housekeeping" by ABC's "This Week" host Christiane Amanpour, commentator Will told viewers last month that his wife, Mari Maseng, had signed on to help Perry prepare for debates. He said Maseng was a longtime political professional who had worked as a campaign speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. But the website Politico wrote about her job before Will addressed it on television.

Fox's Van Susteren fought back last week after it was pointed out in news reports that during a segment on her show about Cain's campaign, she made no mention that her husband, lawyer John Coale, had offered advice to Cain.

Van Susteren wrote on her blog that Coale was not paid for any advice. She said he has many friends across party lines with whom he talks politics, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gingrich, Sarah Palin, John Kerry and Alexandra Pelosi, and hasn't been paid by any of them.

It's all part of living in Washington, she said.

"My critics will assume something sinister and so be it," Van Susteren wrote. "You listen to my questions and watch my interviews and you tell me whether you think they are fair or not."

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