Bull disclosure

By ADAM REILLY  |  October 22, 2008

Eleven years later, the Fed is run by Ben Bernanke. (Greenspan stepped down in 2006.) Meanwhile, Mitchell’s professional portfolio has grown: she’s kept her old title, anchors a daily news show on MSNBC, and provides commentary on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and Hardball. And in that expanded capacity, she’s been weighing in on the ongoing financial crisis — which, obviously, is not unconnected with her husband’s former line of work.

Here’s an example of why, even though Greenspan has stepped down, it’s still problematic for Mitchell to report on financial matters: as Columbia Journalism Review’s Megan Garber recently noted, during a September 24 appearance on Morning Joe, Mitchell suggested that trouble at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac began in 2006 and 2007, after her husband’s departure from the Fed, when Fannie and Freddie embraced the subprime loan market. “Mitchell may be making a fair historical comparison to add context to the current crisis,” Garber acknowledged. “[B]ut the fact that it’s a comparison that would also partially absolve her husband from guilt in that crisis means that it’s probably a point another reporter should be making.”

That’s a tough point to argue against. But in an e-mail to Garber, Allison Gollust, NBC News’s senior vice-president for communications, did just that. Decisions about Mitchell’s reporting, Gollust explained, are made on a case-by-case basis. While stories that might present a conflict are assigned to someone else, Gollust said, “There are countless aspects of the story that present absolutely no potential for conflict whatsoever” — and NBC is “100 percent comfortable with all of [Mitchell’s] reporting thus far.”

The reasoning here is dubious at best: if Mitchell stating that Wall Street’s problems began after her husband left isn’t problematic, what is? But it’s more rigorous than the explanation I received, back in June 2007, when I asked Bloomberg L.P. how it would cover a presidential run by its founder, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg’s answer (the company’s, not the mayor’s) came in an e-mail from Judith Czelusniak, Bloomberg L.P.’s head of public relations. “Bloomberg News, which has won hundreds of awards and honors from its peers for its fair and objective reporting and its investigative reporting, adheres to the strictest standards of attribution and objectivity,” Czelusniak wrote. “We cover every issue according to these standards.” Or, to paraphrase: at Bloomberg, we’re so good that we simply don’t have conflicts of interest.

The Ifill glower
True, some conflicts of interest are routinely acknowledged by news organizations and individual journalists. The Boston Globe has finally figured out that it should always mention that its corporate parent, the New York Times Company, owns part of the Boston Red Sox, for example. And Slate media critic Jack Shafer regularly notes that he’s a Washington Post Company employee (and anything else that strikes him as potentially problematic). Furthermore, mismanaging a conflict can still cost a journalist his or her job: witness former Globe reporter Tania deLuzuriaga, who left that paper after it was revealed that she had an affair with new Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho (then a school administrator) in Florida while at the Miami Herald — and wrote painfully compromising e-mails about it.

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