Suppose you were a movie reviewer who’d signed a nondisclosure agreement that bars you from criticizing anything Michael Bay produces.
Wouldn’t you think it appropriate to mention that you’re legally bound to give him a pass by, say, the eighth graph of your seventh Tranformers review? Maybe just say, “Hey, if I tell you that Mark Walhberg’s performance is more mechanical than Optimus Prime’s, Michael Bay is going to sue the pants off me and then wear those pants to his next movie premiere just to f*ck with me?”
You’d think that would be the least you should do.
So imagine how unethical it would be to hire cable news pundits who are contractually bound to say nothing but nice or neutral things about the president of the United States?
Well, you don’t have to imagine it. It’s what Fox, CNN, and others have been doing as a matter of routine. And the practice raises serious ethical questions.
As Daily Beast senior editor Andrew Kirell reported yesterday, media ethics experts have noticed this trend, and are alarmed by it.
First, Kirell lists just a few of the compromised “pundits” who once worked for Trump and are therefore bound by his sweeping NDAs:
[N]ot only do former Trump staffers — bound by a draconian NDA — routinely appear as pundits across cable and broadcast news networks, but at least five ex-Trump staffers are paid by the networks:
- Jason Miller, a senior communications adviser for the 2016 campaign, is a paid CNN political contributor.
- Marc Short, who served in 2016 as vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence’s senior communications adviser before becoming White House director of legislative affairs, is a paid CNN political commentator.
- Tom Bossert, the president’s first homeland-security adviser, is ABC News’ homeland security analyst.
- Trump’s deputy campaign manager David Bossie is a paid Fox News contributor.
- Sebastian Gorka, who briefly worked as a Trump campaign consultant and then served as a White House strategist, is also a paid Fox News contributor.
Some of these guys are clearly Trump sycophants and would be unlikely to criticize the pr*sident anyway, but is that really the point? What if a panel discussion devolves into an argument over — to cite a real-world example — whether it was appropriate for Trump to breastfeed Mike Pence in public at the Kennedy Center Honors? They’re just supposed to sit mute and nod their approval?
Of course, TV news outlets routinely air commentary from people who are professionally partisan or obligated to not speak ill of certain people, businesses, or politics. But that obligation is easily disclosed in identifying the commentator as a spokesperson, attorney, or chief executive officer.
By contrast, the contractual duty of ex-Trump aides—both paid and unpaid—to avoid bad-mouthing their former boss and his family is almost never disclosed during their appearances.
And that’s dangerously unethical, according to media experts.
“If someone is bound by an NDA and that’s not disclosed, that’s journalistic malpractice,” Steven Roberts, a professor of media ethics at George Washington University, told The Daily Beast. “If you don’t disclose that someone is contractually obligated, that’s a huge ethical problem and a huge ethical mistake.”
An ethical mistake? Involving Donald Trump and today’s mainstream media? No way!
And, notes Kirell, this isn’t just eggheaded hypothetical navel-gazing about declining media standards. The practice has a real effect on what gets reported, and on the credibility of not just these pundits, but also the news organizations that rely on their “expertise”:
[A]fter giving a forceful on-air denial that Trump would have ever said the “N-word,” as alleged by Omarosa, former Trump campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson awkwardly admitted that she, too, signed the president’s stringent NDA.
“So if you had heard him say the ‘N-word,’ you wouldn’t tell me about it anyway,” CNN anchor Erin Burnett correctly assessed. Pierson was left to claim that viewers should simply take her at her now-compromised word — contractual obligations be damned.
Okay, never mind then. After all, if you can’t trust Katrina Pierson, who can you trust?
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