Accuracy in Media

If a professor takes money from a company and then argues in the media for a position the company favors, is he an independent expert–or a paid shill? Michael Schroeder published a valuable expose on the practice in the December 17 edition of the Wall St. Journal.

Schroeder discovered that some experts appearing on TV shows, and quoted in newspaper and magazine articles, have been paid by companies to promote their viewpoints. But in many cases the arrangement between the professor and the company is not disclosed to the public.

Corporations have a right to promote their views.  And we would argue that they have not been forceful enough in presenting their views in the face of a generally hostile press. On the other hand, some watchdogs on the left have a point in saying that this should not be done behind front groups or people whose financial interest in the outcome of a policy debate is not disclosed to the public.

Sheldon Rampton of the liberal Center for Media & Democracy monitors the public relations industry. He says some corporations are trying to smuggle their views into the media as objective news. He cites the case of U.S. Steel company Nucor Corp., which hired Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, to argue in favor of steel tariffs. Morici was quoted in scores of newspaper articles and wrote two dozen letters to editors. In most cases, his role as a paid consultant was not disclosed.

He says that one of the most common tactics of PR firms is to ghost-write editorials and get experts to sign them, sometimes with embarrassing results.  Last spring, William Adler, a journalist and book author who focuses on the nuclear industry reported nearly word-for-word similarities in two op-eds published by different academic experts in different newspapers. On Dec 9, 2003, The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, published an opinion piece by Abdel Bayoumi of the University of South Carolina. A comparison made with another piece by engineer Sheldon Landsberger in the Austin American-Statesman revealed almost word-for-word similarities. Turns out the op-eds were really written by Potomac Communications Group, Inc. in Washington, working on behalf of the nuclear energy industry.

This is just foolish on the part of the nuclear industry. The industry has a story to tell in these days of high oil prices and threats to our energy resources. But when it uses a public relations agency that gets caught manipulating the press, its cause suffers.

Schroeder also cites an attempt last fall by Leading Authorities, Inc. of Washington to recruit experts to criticize New York Attorney Elliot Spitzer. In an email, Leading Authorities asked experts if they would help American International Group, Inc. criticize Spitzer’s investigation of the insurance industry in return for some handsome profit. A $25,000 retainer was offered, $10,000 per TV appearance and for each newspaper opinion piece along with fees for speeches.

The Wall St. Journal expos? is reminiscent of the financial analyst scandal that peaked in May 2001, when Fortune magazine ran a cover story called “Where Mary Meeker Went Wrong.” The subheadline was “She may be the greatest dealmaker around but she’s supposed to be an analyst.”

The financial analyst scandal centered on top analysts appearing in media in order to make investment recommendations to the public, while the news audience never heard about their conflicts of interest–making money from the deals they recommend.

Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker, an Internet analyst, was called “Queen of the Net” by Barron’s and profiled in glowing terms by The New Yorker. The Wall St. Journal equated her with Warren Buffet and Alan Greenspan. Her word alone made stocks rocket, but she couldn’t have done it without the media’s aid. Fortune magazine dubbed her “the single most powerful symbol of how Wall Street can lead investors astray.” The line should have been “how Wall Street with the help of media can lead investors astray.” 

Just because an “expert” propounds a certain view and is paid, doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in the view whole-heartedly. Nor does it mean the company backing the expert isn’t right in its particular stance. But for professors to receive payments does make them appear less-than-neutral observers, and that payment should be disclosed in the media. The public deserves to know the story behind the story “experts.”

By the way, the public also deserves to know who’s behind the Center for Media and Democracy. Its funders include the Schumann Foundation, run by Bill Moyers, and the Turner Foundation, founded by Ted Turner. They have their own agenda.

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