Conflicts of Interest, and the Appearance Thereof

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There was a time when the mere appearance of a conflict of interest was sufficient to rule out certain media practices. That time seems to have long passed.

Take, for example, the alleged pay-for-play scandal at the American Conservative Union. The organization offered FedEx lobbying support in a labor dispute for a $2–3 million fee, which would include, among other things,

Producing op-eds and articles written by ACU’s Chairman David Keene and/or other members of the ACU’s board of directors. (Note that Mr. Keene writes a weekly column that appears in The Hill.)”

In his most recent column for The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, Keene responded to the story:

Last week an article in another publication alleged that I made an unethical proposal as chairman of the American Conservative Union to a potential contributor that could be read in part to imply that I might write a column in this space favorable to the contributor’s position.

Upon seeing this allegation I read the solicitation for the first time, found the inference appalling, and reprimanded the ACU staffer who wrote it. I have never used this column to benefit my clients or non-profits and never will.

When approached for comment by WhoWhatWhy, Keene flatly denied that ACU ever offers op-eds or articles to contributors and claimed he hadn’t seen the letter to FedEx before it was sent. However, he acknowledged that he would be willing to write about topics important to himself and to ACU, “even if ACU was receiving contributions because of our stand on the issue.”

Keene insisted that motive is critical to assessing such conduct:

This may sound more complicated than it should, but the distinction is incredibly important. Motive here is often hard to fathom . . . but is all important. Indeed, it is motive that lies at the base of the Politico allegations. Did ACU oppose the NLRA amendment because we wanted to raise money from FedEx or did we do so because we thought forced unionization is a bad idea?

Politico thought they could read a nefarious motive based on the reporter’s conclusion that we were prepared to change our position if we didn’t get the contribution we were seeking. Had we been willing to do that his reading might well have been correct, but he was wrong in terms of what we did and why. Those who dislike us and some cynics will always assume the worst relative to motives and there is little anyone can do about that, but others looking at the facts realize that things aren’t always as smarmy as some think.

Keene seemed to assume that if he didn’t have the illicit motive in question, then penning an op-ed favoring FedEx’s labor position would be perfectly acceptable—even if FedEx contributed $2 million to his organization. But surely this would at least appear to raise a conflict of interest. So why isn’t the mere appearance problematic enough to rule out publishing such a piece?

[It’s also worth noting that the letter to FedEx was signed not by just any “staffer” but by Executive Vice President Dennis Whitfield. Why would Whitfield feel comfortable signing a letter offering the benefit of supportive op-eds and articles to FedEx, without first clearing it with Keene?]

I also approached The Hill‘s Editor in Chief Hugo Gurdon, who publishes Keene’s weekly column, to ask whether his newspaper would retain Keene in its lineup.

“Our columnists understand it is a basic rule,” said Gurdon, “There is editorial integrity and our column isn’t used for any other purposes.” Thanks to his newspaper’s long relationship with Keene, Gurdon said he took Keene at his word when he claimed he was appalled to learn of the solicitation letter. Gurdon said his newspaper planned to continue running Keene’s column, though he warned ACU that the newspaper’s name could never be used in future solicitation letters.

Even if Politico’s story gave a false impression, as Keene claimed, it is clear that Keene leads a lobbying organization that solicits and accepts money from corporate interests. So why does Gurdon wish to give column space to such a person? Doesn’t the mere act of hiring a lobbyist as a columnist in itself raise the appearance of a conflict of interest that undermines the paper’s claim to “editorial integrity”?

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