The Lobbying-Media Complex

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The Nation

The Lobbying-Media Complex

Sebastian Jones


President Obama spent most of December 4 touring Allentown,
Pennsylvania, meeting with local workers and discussing the economic
crisis. A few hours later, the state's former governor, Tom Ridge, was
on MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews, offering up his
own recovery plan. There were "modest things" the White House might try,
like cutting taxes or opening up credit for small businesses, but the
real answer was for the president to "take his green agenda and blow it
out of the box." The first step, Ridge explained, was to "create nuclear
power plants." Combined with some waste coal and natural gas extraction,
you would have an "innovation setter" that would "create jobs, create

As Ridge counseled the administration to "put that package together," he
sure seemed like an objective commentator. But what viewers weren't told
was that since 2005, Ridge has pocketed $530,659 in executive
compensation for serving on the board of Exelon, the nation's largest
nuclear power company. As of March 2009, he also held an estimated
$248,299 in Exelon stock, according to SEC filings.

Moments earlier, retired general and "NBC Military Analyst" Barry
McCaffrey told viewers that the war in Afghanistan would require an
additional "three- to ten-year effort" and "a lot of money." Unmentioned
was the fact that DynCorp paid McCaffrey $182,309 in 2009 alone. The
government had just granted DynCorp a five-year deal worth an estimated
$5.9 billion to aid American forces in Afghanistan. The first year is
locked in at $644 million, but the additional four options are subject
to renewal, contingent on military needs and political realities.

In a single hour, two men with blatant, undisclosed conflicts of
interest had appeared on MSNBC. The question is, was this an isolated
oversight or business as usual? Evidence points to the latter. In 2003
The Nation exposed McCaffrey's financial ties to military
contractors he had promoted on-air on several cable networks; in 2008
David Barstow wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the New York
about the Pentagon's use of former military officers--many
lobbying or consulting for military contractors--to get their talking
points on television in exchange for access to decision-makers; and in
2009 bloggers uncovered how ex-Newsweek writer Richard Wolffe had
guest-hosted Countdown With Keith Olbermann while working
at a large PR firm specializing in "strategies for managing corporate

These incidents represent only a fraction of the covert corporate
influence peddling on cable news, a four-month investigation by The
has found. Since 2007 at least seventy-five registered
lobbyists, public relations representatives and corporate
officials--people paid by companies and trade groups to manage their
public image and promote their financial and political interests--have
appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network with no
disclosure of the corporate interests that had paid them. Many have been
regulars on more than one of the cable networks, turning in dozens--and
in some cases hundreds--of appearances.

For lobbyists, PR firms and corporate officials, going on cable
television is a chance to promote clients and their interests on the
most widely cited source of news in the United States. These appearances
also generate good will and access to major players inside the
Democratic and Republican parties. For their part, the cable networks,
eager to fill time and afraid of upsetting the political elite, have
often looked the other way. At times, the networks have even disregarded
their own written ethics guidelines. Just about everyone involved is
heavily invested in maintaining the current system, with the exception
of the viewer.

While lobbyists and PR flacks have long tried to spin the press, the
launch of Fox News and MSNBC in 1996 and the Clinton impeachment saga
that followed helped create the caldron of twenty-four-hour political
analysis that so many influence peddlers call home. Since then, guests
with serious conflicts of interest have popped up with alarming
regularity on every network. Just examine their presence in coverage of
the economic crash and the healthcare reform debate, two recent issues
that have engendered massive cable coverage.

As the recession slammed the country in late 2008 and government
bailouts followed, lobbyists and PR flacks took to the air with
troubling regularity, advocating on behalf of clients and their
interests while masquerading as neutral analysts. One was Bernard
Whitman, president of Whitman Insight Strategies, a communications firm
that specializes in helping "guide successful lobbying, communications
and information campaigns through targeted research." Whitman's clients
have included lobbying firms like BGR Group and marketing/PR firms like
Ogilvy & Mather, which in turn have numerous corporate clients with
a vested interest in shaping federal policies. Whitman is a veteran of
the Clinton era and when making television appearances continues to be
identified for work he did almost a decade earlier.

According to its website, Whitman Insight Strategies has worked for AIG
to "develop, test, launch, and enhance their consumer brand," and
continues to assist the insurance giant "as it responds to ongoing
marketplace developments." Whitman Strategies has also posted more than
100 clips of Bernard Whitman's television appearances on a YouTube
account. During a September 18, 2008, Fox News appearance to discuss
Sarah Palin, Whitman proceeded to lambaste John McCain for proposing to
"let AIG fail," saying that this demonstrated "just how little he
understands the global economy today."

On March 25, 2009, in the midst of a scandal over AIG's executive
bonuses, Whitman appeared on Fox News again. "The American people were
understandably outraged about AIG," he began. "Having said that, we need
to move beyond anger, frustration and hysteria to really get down to the
brass tacks of solving this economy," he advised the public. In neither
instance was Whitman's ongoing work for AIG mentioned.

Another person with AIG ties is Ron Christie, now at the helm of his own
consultancy. While working at Republican-leaning firm DC Navigators, now
Navigators Global, from 2006 through September 2008, Christie was
registered to lobby on behalf of the insurance giant, lobbying filings
show. During that period, AIG shelled out $590,000 to DC Navigators.

On September 18, 2008, Christie went on Hardball to discuss the
government's response to AIG's near implosion days earlier. He was
introduced only as a Republican strategist. As Chris Matthews mocked a
presidential press conference on the financial crisis held earlier that
day, Christie interrupted to say President Bush was "smart to have
gotten a former person from Goldman Sachs who is a very bright man, who
understands the markets and liquidity." Christie was referring to
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who had once been the chair and CEO of
Goldman Sachs and who played a pivotal role in the AIG bailout. "This is
not a political sideshow. This is putting the right person in his
administration to deal with this crisis," Christie said.

Bigger players were on AIG's payroll, too: shortly after receiving its
first bailout, in 2008, AIG hired PR mega-firm Burson-Marsteller to
handle "controversial issues." In April 2009, B-M hired former White
House press secretary Dana Perino, already an established TV pundit. A
month later she was picked up as a contributor to Fox News, where she
has had occasion to discuss the economic meltdown.

This past July, for example, Perino joined a roundtable on Fox Business
Network's Money for Breakfast, which briefly noted her
affiliation with B-M but neglected to mention its link to AIG. When a
fellow guest commented that AIG had been "highly regulated" before the
crash, Perino pounced, suggesting that current financial reform efforts
demonstrate how "Washington has a tendency to overreact in a crisis."
When Gary Kalman of USPIRG suggested that regulations had, in fact, been
rolled back for decades, Perino scoffed, "I don't think there are many
business people who would actually agree with that."

(Whitman, Christie and Perino did not return requests for comment.)

Another conflict of interest plagued the televised debate over how to
reform healthcare. Terry Holt, once a spokesman for the Republican
National Committee and for House minority leader John Boehner, has also
been, on and off since 2003, a lobbyist for the health insurance trade
group America's Health Insurance Plans. When he and three other
Republican operatives formed communications and lobbying firm HDMK in
2007, one of their first clients was AHIP.

On March 5, 2009, Holt, introduced simply as a Republican, told MSNBC
anchor David Shuster that the Obama administration was "going to, you
know, cut Medicare benefits for something like 11 million seniors to
start this big healthcare reform project." By October AHIP was running
ads in several states against the health reform bill that asked, "Is it
right to ask 10 million seniors on Medicare Advantage for more than
their fair share?"

Holt also made several appearances to discuss healthcare policy on CNN,
where his affiliation with insurers was cited on several occasions,
starting in September, though not during a September 14 appearance on
The Situation Room, when Holt discussed healthcare reform
efforts. The network subsequently experienced a small scandal in October
when blogger Greg Sargent revealed that political analyst Alex
Castellanos, a frequent commentator on CNN, had been helping craft
attack ads for AHIP--including the one that referred to the "10 million
seniors" losing Medicare benefits--while discussing healthcare policy on
air, identified only as a Republican strategist.

When I interviewed Holt recently, he told me that there was one occasion
when his work for AHIP was not mentioned on CNN, and that afterward, a
producer contacted him to discuss his work for the trade group. Holt
said that he believes that cable appearances "operate best with maximum

"When you're addressing the public, it's a reasonable expectation that
they be fully aware of your perspective--where you're coming from--and I
see my obligation as informing the news organization that's asking me to
appear or to comment about my standing and letting them be the judge,"
he said.

Democratic lobbyists and corporate consultants have also made
appearances to discuss health reform with no reference to their
pharmaceutical or insurance company clients. On September 24, 2009, Dick
Gephardt appeared on MSNBC's Morning Meeting, where he labeled
the public option "not essential." Gephardt was asked by host Dylan
Ratigan to discuss healthcare reform in light of his experience as a
Congressman during the Clinton effort in 1993 and now simply as "an
observer through this process." There was no mention of his work
advising insurance and pharmaceutical interests through his lobbying
firm Gephardt Government Affairs, nor any mention that Gephardt is a
lobbyist for NBC/Universal.

Likewise, Tom Daschle dropped by MSNBC on May 12 and July 2, 2009, and
NBC's Meet the Press on August 16, 2009. At each appearance he
discussed healthcare reform with no mention of his work on behalf of
lobbying firm Alston & Bird, which advises insurer UnitedHealth
Group. Only during a December 8 appearance on MSNBC's Dr. Nancy
was Daschle finally confronted, albeit with kid gloves, about how his
simultaneous work for lobbying firms on behalf of health insurers and
meetings with administration officials on healthcare reform appeared to
be at odds. "I certainly want to be appreciative of perception, so we're
going to take great care in how we go forward," Daschle promised. A
month later, on January 11, the former Senate majority leader returned
to MSNBC to discuss healthcare with Andrea Mitchell. In the nearly
ten-minute interview, his insurance work went unmentioned.

As of this writing, healthcare and financial reform legislation have
largely stalled. And although it would be foolish to argue that
Daschle's TV appearances sank the public option or that Dana Perino's
punditry fatally wounded a proposed Consumer Financial Protection
Agency, there can be no doubt that there is a cumulative effect from
hundreds of appearances by dozens of unidentified lobbyists and
influence peddlers that helps to drive press coverage and public

Janine Wedel, an anthropologist in the School of Public Policy at George
Mason University and author of the new book Shadow Elite, told me
in a recent interview that while these influence peddlers are not
necessarily unethical, they "elude accountability to governments,
shareholders and voters--and threaten democracy."

"When there's a whole host of pundits on the airwaves touting the same
agenda at the same time, you get a cumulative effect that shapes public
opinion toward their agenda," she said.

Frequent television news commentators are also often given access to
policy-makers, who may find that they are meeting with not just a TV
pundit but also a paid lobbyist. This past March, for example, the White
House held an exclusive "communications message meeting" for
high-profile Democratic strategists with top presidential aide David
Axelrod. Of the eighteen attendees, almost all television regulars, a
third were lobbyists or public relations flacks, such as Kelly Bingel, a
lobbyist for AHIP and a partner at mega-firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti,
and Rich Masters, a partner at PR/lobbying outfit Qorvis Communications,
where he works on behalf of trade group Pharmaceutical Researchers and
Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

Ultimately, no matter how often or how cleverly lobbyists and PR
operatives have used cable news appearances to their business advantage,
it is hard to fault them for the practice. In many cases, they have made
no attempt to hide their work for corporate clients; some, like Terry
Holt, have gone out of their way to inform producers and bookers of the
work they're doing on behalf of clients.

This leaves final responsibility in the hands of the cable news networks
that invite lobbyists and corporate flacks on the air and fail to
identify their affiliations. This past fall Aaron Brown, host of CNN's
NewsNight from 2001 until 2005, when the network pushed him out,
and currently a professor of journalism at Arizona State University,
told me that he didn't think the problem was a lack of standards but a
lack of enforcement. Bookers--"young, inexperienced people under a lot
of pressure"--are unlikely to ask guests about potential conflicts of
interest. "I think they're often derelict in vetting," says Brown.

For Brown, though, the lack of disclosure is symptomatic of larger
problems in cable journalism, rooted in the shift to putting numerous
analysts and strategists on television as an easy, inexpensive way to
fill time. It's "a lot cheaper than sending a correspondent to
Afghanistan," he says.

"What I find unconscionable about this is that it's not like a
struggling newspaper is looking for an inexpensive way to do journalism
because they have no money. These are highly successful profit centers
for the corporations that they're spawned from," Brown said.

Jeff Cohen, who helped found the nonprofit group Fairness & Accuracy
in Reporting (FAIR), echoes some of Brown's critiques. Cohen worked for
MSNBC for several months in 2002 and published a book in 2006, Cable
News Confidential
, about the experience. When I asked him why men
like Gephardt and McCaffrey could go on television with no reference to
their consulting and lobbying, Cohen explained that, based on his
experience at MSNBC, "these regulars get introduced the way they want to
be introduced.

"This is the key: Gephardt will always be the former majority leader of
the House. Period.... These guys know they won't be identified by what
they do now but instead by what their position was years or decades
ago," Cohen said.

Some of this has changed in recent months, with CNN starting to identify
the industries some analysts work for. For its part, Fox News has long
identified the lobbying or PR firms of some--though not all--guests, but
the network does not give viewers any information about the kinds of
clients these firms represent. (CNN would not return calls, and Fox News
did not provide comment.)

Then there's MSNBC, the cable network with the most egregious instances
of airing guests with conflicts of interest. Only on MSNBC did Todd
Boulanger, a Jack Abramoff-connected lobbyist working for Cassidy and
Associates, go on a TV rehabilitation tour with no identification of his
work, all while he was under investigation for corruption (he pleaded
guilty in January 2009). Only on MSNBC was a prime-time program,
Countdown, hosted by public relations operative Richard Wolffe
and later by a pharmaceutical company consultant, former Governor Howard
Dean, with no mention of the outside work either man was engaged in. And
MSNBC has yet to introduce DynCorp's Barry McCaffrey as anything but a
"military analyst."

When I spoke with MSNBC in mid-January, the network seemed eager to
prove it is fixing the problem. David McCormick, the ombudsman for NBC
News, deals with questions about standards and practices at MSNBC. (Both
organizations use the same policies-and-guidelines booklet, which
McCormick helped develop; CNBC has more stringent disclosure
requirements as a result of SEC rules.) McCormick told me that the issue
of conflict of interest has been on his mind of late. He said that MSNBC
intended to contact its guests and brief them on its disclosure
policies, adding that "trust is a huge part of the business" and that
the network relies on guests "to let us know of any potential

"We've been talking to our folks for a number of years about the
importance of transparency and letting the viewers in on where folks--it
could be contributors, analysts or experts that we don't pay--fit into
the mosaic of a story," said McCormick. "Are we perfect about it? No."

In fact, potential conflicts of interest have been a topic of concern
for more than a decade. An October 1998 copy of the "NBC News Policies
and Guidelines" devotes an entire chapter to
"Guests/Analysts/Experts/Advocates." It states:

It is essential that our viewers understand the particular perspective
of all guests, analysts and experts (whether paid or not) who appear on
our programs....
 Our viewers need all relevant information so they can come to their own
conclusions regarding the topic at hand. It is not enough to say: "John
Doe of XYZ Foundation."...Likewise, it may not be enough to say Jane
Doe, NBC consultant or analyst.... Disclosure may be made in copy or
visually. But it must be done in a clear manner.

McCormick told me that financial conflicts of interest were "in the same
category as ideological or political interests," but also suggested that
MSNBC's practice of posting information about guests on its website was
an adequate way to air potential conflicts of interest. McCormick
emphasized that this reform was "a work in progress."

A few days later, on January 22, I happened to catch MSNBC's Morning
Mark Penn, identified only as a Clinton administration pollster
and Democratic strategist, was suggesting that the Obama administration
put healthcare reform on ice. Unmentioned: Penn's role as worldwide CEO
of Burson-Marsteller, which has an entire healthcare division devoted to
helping clients like Eli Lilly and Pfizer "create and manage perceptions
that deliver positive business results."

At times, it begins to seem as though the problem is beyond fixing, an
unfortunate but unavoidable reality of our media and political
landscape, in which the lines between public service and corporate
advancement are so blurred. It is clear that the pressure applied on the
networks so far has not resulted in systemic change. Even in the
aftermath of increasing scrutiny--particularly after David Barstow's
Pulitzer Prize-winning exposés in the Times--General
McCaffrey continues to appear on television without any caveats about
his work for military contractors. As Salon blogger Glenn
Greenwald has observed, none of the networks involved in the scandal
have ever bothered to address Barstow's findings on air, and they
noticeably omitted Barstow's name from coverage of the 2009 Pulitzers.
"It's almost like a mysterious black hole that this issue, which is
enormous, is getting no attention from the offenders themselves," the
Society for Professional Journalists' ethics committee chair Andy Schotz
told me recently.

Jay Rosen, a media critic and journalism professor at New York
University, has a different take. "More disclosure is good--I'm
certainly in favor of that--but why are these people on at all?" asks
Rosen. "They have views and can manufacture opinions around any event at
any time."

Rosen echoes something Brown mentioned to me. Watching cable news cover
the 2008 election with more analysts crammed at one table than ever
before--as if to ask, "How many people can we put on the set at one
time?"--Brown said he was "amazed how little they had to offer." He went
on, "We live in a time where there are no shortages of opinions and an
incredible deficit of facts."


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