Flacks and Figures

Pundits and journalists should reveal their wealth

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I’m getting paid $1,000 for this article. Last year, I made roughly $50,000 between a 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. freelance gig writing celebrity news and publishing some one-off articles. I grew up middle class, though my divorced father eventually worked his way well into the upper-middle class. Financially speaking, I’m fine, though I live alone in Toronto, and I likely won’t be able to afford a house unless my parents die or my dad provides the cash for a down payment. You probably don’t need to know these details, but it may color what I say next: it is my opinion that wealthy journalists should disclose their wealth when matters of finance, taxation, or any public policy they report on will affect their bottom line.

Back in January, Anderson Cooper, scion of the Vanderbilt family, conducted a one-on-one 60 Minutes interview with the newly sworn-in congressional representative from New York’s 14th District, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The splashy interview generated its biggest moment when Cooper suggested that Ocasio-Cortez’s policy agenda of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal was “radical,” asking her, “Do you call yourself a radical?” “Yeah. You know, if that’s what radical means, call me a radical,” she responded, defiantly.

Less viral but more telling was the exchange leading up to that moment, with Cooper pressing Ocasio-Cortez about the revenue needed to pay for her programs. “This would require, though, raising taxes,” he said, as though the very notion were absurd. When Ocasio-Cortez agreed that “people are going to have to start paying their fair share in taxes,” Cooper pressed her again, almost annoyed: “Do you have a specific on the tax rate?” This gave the first-year congresswoman space to explain top marginal tax rates because Cooper and the 60 Minutes producers evidently had no interest in doing so themselves. Which gets to what was so clarifying about the back-and-forth: not Cooper’s questions about how a politician intended to pay for her agenda, but his disbelief verging on indignation at the prospect of a tax increase for the wealthiest Americans. It’s an idea with broad popular support, though perhaps not among the Vanderbilts.

Imagine, for a moment, if, at the top of the segment, Cooper had told his audience—reminded them—that he is a multimillionaire. That he is the primetime anchor at one of the country’s biggest cable news outlets. Though CNN and CBS don’t disclose the value of their contracts with on-air talent, pegging Cooper’s earnings in the tens of millions isn’t a stretch. Take a look at Megyn Kelly’s $30 million exit package from NBC News—after being fired for being racist, no less!—and you’ll get a good sense of the exorbitant salaries networks pay their top anchors. So, imagine it. Cooper, before launching into a loaded line of questioning about Ocasio-Cortez’s tax policy, openly states to the audience, “In the interest of full-disclosure: I, Anderson Cooper, heir to a vast fortune, currently make more money per year than you plebs at home could dream of, and I would be directly affected by Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed 70 percent marginal tax on incomes over $10 million.” Would he then have had the gall to highlight the tax increase? And would any reasonable viewer have bought into his bullshit?

Avoiding conflicts of interest is basic ethical practice for journalists. Check any news organization or journalism school’s handbook on ethics, and you’ll find the concept is central to maintaining credibility in journalism. “Any personal or professional interests that conflict with [our allegiance to the public], whether in appearance or in reality, risk compromising our credibility,” explains NPR’s Ethics Handbook. “We are vigilant in disclosing to both our supervisors and the public any circumstances where our loyalties may be divided—extending to the interests of spouses and other family members—and when necessary, we recuse ourselves from related coverage.”

Watching for potential conflicts, understanding them, acknowledging and disclosing them, publicly where necessary, are among the core jobs of any journalist with a shred of self-respect. Consumers of journalism, meanwhile, are already accustomed to such disclosures, which often come in the form of “so-and-so company is owned by our parent company.” When spouses or family members are involved, a recusal is usually in order, but it’s not unheard of for a journalist or news anchor to state that one of the subjects in a story is a friend. This is all a matter of simple honesty, though it’s not always adhered to in the strictest terms. Still, the prejudicial effects of a journalist’s net worth never enter into the equation at all.

Searching through various publications’ codes of ethics, from the Washington Post to the New York Times, directly named conflicts of interest tend to fall into categories of familial relation, partisan work, direct financial entanglements, work outside the organization, and the accepting of gifts, travel, or direct payment. Listed nowhere is the matter of salary or wealth. Given a few moments’ thought, it’s staggering to consider all of the effort that went into the New York Times’ eleven-thousand-word “Ethical Journalism” handbook without its writers ever considering, at least on the page, their salaries or inherited wealth as potential conflicts. Then again, the paper that employs Bari Weiss to garner hate-clicks may not be the ideal place to search for structural critiques of capitalism.

Soothslayers

Standing for freedom of the press, John Thadeus Delane, editor of the Times UK, responded to criticism of his paper by the government in 1852 with two famous editorials that outlined the emerging philosophy of journalistic integrity.

Imagine if, at the top of the segment, Cooper had told his audience that he is a multimillionaire.

“The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time and instantly by disclosing them to make them common property of the nation. . . . The press lives by disclosures,” he wrote, adding in the following day’s editorial that “the duty of the journalist is the same as the historian—to seek out truth, above all things, and to present to his readers, not such things as statecraft would wish them to know, but the truth as near as he can attain it.”

In setting the interests of the press apart and even in opposition to the interests of the government, Delane was outlining the principles of independence that would go on to form the backbone of our modern understanding of journalism as ethically bound and in the interests of the people. So we got the Fourth Estate, which adheres to notions of accuracy, impartiality, honesty, accountability, and transparency. These are principles so ingrained in the public consciousness that even a propaganda outlet like Fox News for years kept the motto “Fair and Balanced,” ditching it only in 2016 for the more disturbingly accurate “Most Watched, Most Trusted.” As Fox regularly proves, those principles can easily be used, abused, and perverted by powerful interests. How else to explain, for example, why CNN was in court last year, fighting, as part of a larger defamation lawsuit, to keep their internal news standards guide, presumably detailing their commitment to factual reporting and transparency, out of the public eye?

The election of Donald Trump and his attendant attacks on the media have clarified the need to reform how the mainstream press conducts itself. The October 29, 2016, front page of the New York Times, from the day after James Comey’s letter announced the reopened investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, is a perfect encapsulation of the worst habits of a press that fails to understand its role in presenting and, more important, contextualizing information for a public constantly bombarded by political propaganda—sorry, sorry, spin. Outlets like the Times and CNN have doubled down on facts—yes, CNN, an apple is not a banana, we know—but facts cannot and do not exist in a vacuum. Reporters run away from bias and toward some Platonic ideal of facts and figures, but the presence of bias is literally unavoidable, and as with everything else in our system, money undergirds all of it. Money is the original conflict of interest, infecting impartiality, honesty, accountability, even transparency itself. The corrective is daylight.

You’ll never see that corrective at Fox News, where Trump’s buddy Sean Hannity rails against the left while pulling in up to $36 million dollars annually. Then there’s Tucker Carlson, who’s recently taken up the mantle of economic populism to warn his viewers about the dangers of wealth inequality; his presumably elephantine salary is a secret. Maybe, if he were honest, his viewers could see through his cynical attempts to play both sides. When Dutch historian Rutger Bregman went on Carlson’s show to argue that most of the people on Fox News had been “bought by the billionaire class,” the host declined to air the interview, presumably after much hissing and spitting. So much for transparency from the “Most Trusted” cable news channel.

Fool Disclosure

Fox is an easy target, though. The other major networks are just as culpable. In a recent CNN interview, Bernie Sanders reiterated his views about the immiseration of the American working class by the top 1 percent and the entitlement of all people to a living wage. Host Erin Burnett appeared irritated; she’d heard his spiel before, and it wasn’t news-making. She had attempted to goad Sanders into a fight with Elizabeth Warren by asking whether he thinks there’s a “cap on support from the progressive left” with two progressive candidates in the field. A “fair question,” Sanders admitted, but fair and good are two very different things. Sharing the clip on Twitter, twenty-two-year-old Google employee and tech entrepreneur Michael Sayman wondered, “How many folks are aware that the journalist in this interview is worth over $12 million and has an annual salary of $3 million? To put [it] into perspective, Bernie’s entire life-long net worth at 77 years old is less than half of her annual salary at CNN.” While the accuracy of those figures, from a quick Google search, is debatable, Burnett, with her 7 p.m. slot, is no doubt one of CNN’s bigger earners.

Sayman, of course, would be attuned to the difference between Burnett and Sanders. Despite being a Silicon Valley star, he grew up marked by the 2008 financial crash. In 2012, when he was only a teenager, his family lost their home to foreclosure. He ended up becoming their provider, keeping them afloat by creating apps for Apple’s App Store. He went on to work for Facebook before Google. Regardless of his more recent success, however, the precariousness of Sayman’s early years allows him to see the state of inequality in the world for what it is. Maybe Sayman should have Burnett’s job, bringing CNN’s audience one perspective closer to those who would benefit from the policies offered by Sanders, instead of those in the thrall of multimillion-dollar paydays.

Back in February, UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich, responding to a column by Farhad Manjoo titled “Abolish Billionaires,” tweeted, “Anyone who has a billion dollars either exploited a monopoly that should have been broken up, got inside information unavailable to other investors, bribed some politicians, or inherited the money from their parents (who did one of the above).” A cheeky tweet, surely, but where is the lie? Quick to take the bait was MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle, who tweeted, “This is not true and it hurts the brand of the democratic party. There is a difference btw a monopoly & winner take all.” She proceeded to list a series of “good” billionaires: Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Warren Buffett, Phil Knight, Marc Benioff, Pierre Omidyar, Thomas Monaghan. When Winners Take All author Anand Giridharadas responded that the “tycoons of our age don’t need greater advocacy,” Ruhle remained firm. “It also [is] not our jobs to spread falsehoods that every billionaire has achieved that wealth through nefarious means,” she wrote.

Money is the original conflict of interest. The corrective is daylight.

Why an MSNBC reporter would feel the need to defend the honor of a media mogul, a famous investor, and the founders of Walmart, Nike, Salesforce, eBay, and Domino’s Pizza, respectively, is a curious question—one easily answered the moment you dive into Ruhle’s biography. Before working at MSNBC, Ruhle was a host on Bloomberg Television. Before that? She spent fourteen years working in finance as an investment banker for Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, following an early internship at Merrill Lynch. A 2018 profile of Ruhle for InStyle lays it all out:

She loved her job, was well-regarded in her field, and felt like a role model for her kids. Oh, and she was making bank. “One of the things that’s great about the financial industry is, it’s really financially rewarding,” Ruhle says without hesitation. “That helps us be our badass selves because you have more options in the world.”

Abominable.

I don’t know how much Ruhle makes currently—it’s privileged information. But it shouldn’t be. Ruhle may think billionaires are capable of being good people, but it’s hard to imagine her views aren’t clouded by her background and potentially her current salary. At the very least, her audience should be informed of the conflict of interest inherent in Ruhle, a wealthy person, makes statements defending the power and corruption of wealthy people.

Days after her defense of billionaires, Ruhle once again stood atop her Twitter soapbox when Amazon announced they’d no longer be building a headquarters in Queens. She hit back at, who else, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Tech IS the future of business[.] Wall St. is the past & the biggest earners in finance are moving their tax dollars to big houses in small-taxation states,” she wrote, pitting Ocasio-Cortez’s activism against the billions in tax giveaways Amazon would have received. Ruhle later added, in response to pushback, “It does seem CRAZY and unfair that Amazon would pay NO federal taxes (while banking $11.2bn in profits)[.] BUT that does not mean they would destroy Queens.” I suppose in her view, the residents of Queens who fought against the massive force for inequality that is Amazon were simply standing in the way of becoming their “badass selves.”

The Facts of Life (Are All about You)

Journalism must surely take some of the blame for the crisis of declining public trust in the press. Journalists’ ability to imagine themselves above the fray, incapable of being swayed, is antithetical to journalism. Disclosure must be more consistent, and more expansive, bringing audiences not just the facts of the news, but the context in which they’re receiving them. This includes a reporter’s wealth. Millionaires on TV interviewing politicians who aim to tax them is more than adversarial; it’s a conflict of interest. The same is true when high-salaried journalists extol the moral virtues of the rich or make the case for kindly (or unfettered) capitalism to an audience of millions.

In their lack of transparency, wealthy journalists safeguard the bastions of power in which their riches are stored. They spread an untruth about a world where the influence of money is benign. It’s time, instead, for journalists to disclose what we’re worth. Show us your tax returns, Cooper.

Corey Atad is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

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