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George Will’s Ethics: None of Our Business? and PU-Litzer Prizes for 2003
L ate December 2003 brought to light a pair of self-inflicted wounds to well known columnist George Will’s ethical pretensions. He broke an elementary rule of journalism—and then, when the New York Times called him on it, proclaimed the transgression to be no one’s business but his own.
It turns out that George Will was among a number of prominent individuals to receive $25,000 per day of conversation on a board of advisers for Hollinger International, a newspaper firm controlled by magnate Conrad Black. Although Will has often scorned the convenient forgetfulness of others, the Times reported, “Mr. Will could not recall how many meetings he attended.” But an aide confirmed the $25,000 fee.
Even for a wealthy commentator, that’s a hefty paycheck for one day of talk. But it didn’t stop Will from lavishing praise on Black in print—without a word about their financial tie. In early March 2003, Will wrote a syndicated piece that blasted critics of President Bush’s plans to launch an all-out war on Iraq. Several paragraphs of the column featured quotations from a speech by Black. The laudatory treatment began high in the column as Will referred to some criticisms of Bush policies and then wrote: “Into this welter of foolishness has waded Conrad Black.”
The column did not contain the slightest hint that this wonderful foe of “foolishness” had provided checks to fatten the columnist’s assets at $25,000 a pop.
But Will claimed in a December interview that nothing was amiss. “Asked in the interview if he should have told his readers of the payments he had received from Hollinger,” a New York Times article reported on December 22, “Mr. Will said he saw no reason to do so.”
The Times quoted Will as saying: “My business is my business. Got it?” Yeah. We get it, George. The only question is whether the editors who keep printing your stuff will get it, too.
After three decades as a superstar pundit, Will continues to flourish. Several hundred newspapers publish his syndicated column, Newsweek prints two-dozen essays per year, and he appears each Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
The syndicate with a very big stake in George Will cannot be indifferent to the latest flap, but there’s obvious reticence to singe the right-winged golden goose. Alan Shearer, the Washington Post Writers Group editorial director and general manager, said: “I think I would have liked to have known.”
A week later, via a letter in the New York Times , a more forthright response came from Gilbert Cranberg, former chair of the professional standards committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers: “When a syndicated journalist writes favorably about a benefactor, that is very much the business of Mr. Will’s editors and readers.”
Cranberg quoted from the National Conference of Editorial Writers code of ethics, which includes provisions that “the writer should be constantly alert to conflicts of interest, real or apparent”—including “those that may arise from financial holdings” and “secondary employment.” Noting that “timely public disclosure can minimize suspicion,” the code adds: “Editors should seek to hold syndicates to these standards.”
will they? George Will is a syndicated powerhouse. He has gotten
away with hiding other big conflicts of interest over the last quarter-century.
In October 1980, Will appeared on the ABC television program “Nightline”
to praise Ronald Reagan’s “thoroughbred performance”
in a debate with incumbent Jimmy Carter. But Will did not disclose
to viewers that he’d helped coach Reagan for the debate—and,
in the process, had read Carter briefing materials stolen from the
When, much later, Will’s “debategate” duplicity came to light, his media colleagues let him off with a polite scolding. The incident faded from media memory. Thus, in autumn 1992, when Will reminisced on ABC’s “This Week” about the 1980 Carter-Reagan debate, he didn’t mention his own devious role and none of his journalistic buddies in the studio were impolite enough to say anything about it.
Will has also played fast and loose with ethics in the midst of other contests for the presidency. At the media watch group FAIR (where I’m an associate), senior analyst Steve Rendall pointed out: “During the 1996 campaign, Will caught some criticism for commenting on the presidential race while his second wife, Mari Maseng Will, was a senior staffer for the Dole presidential campaign. Defending a Dole speech on ABC News (1/28/96), Will, according to Washingtonian magazine (3/96), ‘failed to mention...that his wife not only counseled Dole to give the speech but also helped write it.’”
In 2000, Will “suffered another ethical lapse,” Rendall recounts in Extra! . The renowned columnist “met with George W. Bush just before the Republican candidate was to appear on ABC’s ‘This Week.’ Later, in a column (3/4/01), Will admitted that he’d met with Bush to preview questions, not wanting to ‘ambush him with unfamiliar material.’ In the meeting, Will provided Bush with a 3-by-5 card containing a crucial question he would later ask the candidate on the air.”
George Will has long been fond of denouncing moral deficiencies. Typical was this fulmination in a March 1994 column: “Taught that their sincerity legitimized their intentions, the children of the 1960s grew up convinced they could not do wrong. Hence, the Clinton administration’s genuine bewilderment when accused of ethical lapses.”
In what can be understood as a case of psychological projection, Will derisively added: “It is a theoretical impossibility for people in ‘the party of compassion’ to behave badly because good behavior is whatever they do.”
During the past three decades, Will—who chose to become a syndicated Washington Post columnist in the early 1970s rather than continue as a speech writer for Senator Jesse Helms—has been fond of commenting on the moral failures of black people while depicting programs for equity as ripoff artistry. In February 1991, for instance, he wrote: “The rickety structure of affirmative action, quotas and the rest of the racial spoils system depends on victimology—winning for certain groups the lucrative status of victim.”
In subsequent years, not satisfied with his own very lucrative status, Will made a quiet pact with corporate wheeler-dealer Conrad Black. When exposed, Will compounded his malfeasance by declaring that it was only “my business.”
Words that George Will wrote ten years ago now aptly describe his own stance: “It is a theoretical impossibility” that he behaved badly. “Good behavior” is whatever he does. Nice work if he can get it. And he can. Got it?
Announcing the PU-Litzer Prizes for 2003
T he PU-litzer Prizes were established to give recognition to the stinkiest media performances of the year. The 12th annual PU-litzer Prizes (chosen by me, in consultation with Jeff Cohen) for the foulest media performances of 2003 are:
Media Mogul of the Year:
Lowry Mays, CEO of Clear Channel
W hile some broadcasters care about their programming, the CEO of the U.S.’s biggest radio company (with more than 1,200 stations) admits he cares only about the ads. The Clear Channel boss told Fortune magazine in March: “If anyone said we were in the radio business, it wouldn’t be someone from our company. We’re not in the business of providing news and information. We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.”
Liberating Iraq Prize:
NBC’s Tom Brokaw
I nterviewing a military analyst as U.S. jet bombers headed to Baghdad on the first day of the Iraq war, NBC anchor Brokaw declared: “Admiral McGinn, one of the things that we don’t want to do is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq, because in a few days we’re going to own that country.”
The More You Watch, The Less You Know Prize:
Fox News Channel
A ccording to a University of Maryland study, most U.S. citizens who get their news from commercial TV harbored at least one of three “misperceptions” about the Iraq war: that weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq, that evidence closely linking Iraq to Al Qaeda had been found, or that world opinion approved of the U.S. invasion. Fox News viewers were the most confused about key facts, with 80 percent embracing at least one of those misperceptions. The study found a correlation between being misinformed and being supportive of the war.
Clear It with the Pentagon Award:
A month after the invasion of Iraq began, CNN executive Eason Jordan admitted on his network’s “Reliable Sources” show (4/20/03) that CNN had allowed U.S. military officials to help screen its on-air analysts: “I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance—‘At CNN, here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war’—and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.”
Conservative Times for the “Liberal”
O ver the years, ABC correspondent John Stossel became known for one-sided, often-inaccurate reporting on behalf of his pro-corporate, “greed is good” ideology. He boasted that his on-air job was to “explain the beauties of the free market” and received lecture fees from corporate pressure groups, even speaking on Capitol Hill against consumer-protection regulation.
In May, when Stossel was promoted to co-anchor of ABC’s “20/20,” a network insider told TV Guide : “These are conservative times.... The network wants somebody to match the times.”
Coddling Donald Prize:
CBS’s Lesley Stahl, ABC’s Peter Jennings, & others
W hen news broke about Saddam Hussein’s capture, Stahl and Jennings each interviewed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In step with their mainstream media colleagues, both failed to ask about Rumsfeld’s cordial 1983 meeting with Hussein in Baghdad on behalf of the Reagan administration that opened up diplomatic and military ties between the U.S. government and the dictator that lasted through seven years of his worst brutality.
Military Groupie Prize:
Katie Couric, NBC’s “Today Show”
W ell, Commander Thompson,” said Couric on April 3, in the midst of the invasion carnage, “thanks for talking with us at this very early hour out there. And I just want you to know, I think Navy SEALs rock.”
Noblesse Oblige Occupation Award:
Thomas Friedman, New York Times
I n a November 30 piece, Times columnist Friedman gushed, “This war (in Iraq) is the most important liberal, revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan.” He lauded the war as “one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad.” Friedman did not mention the estimated 112 billion barrels of oil in Iraq...or the continuous deceptions that led to the “noble” enterprise.
Norman Solomon is co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You .
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.