The conflict over conflicts of interest

August 18, 2021

Recently, the New York Times published a story profiling a welter of financial conflicts of interest in the work of former Times journalist William Laurence, described as “a bold accumulator of outside pay from the government agencies he covered.” He also took money from the World’s Fair, the article notes, while using the Times’s editorial voice to promote the construction of a controversial and expensive science exhibit for the fair.

Laurence’s financial entanglements, which were largely condoned by the newspaper when they played out more than fifty years ago, were part and parcel of an unfortunate and bygone “freewheeling, rough-and-tumble era” of journalism, the Times notes, pointing to the tough ethical guidelines that today keep reporters on the straight and narrow.  

But, in truth, the Times, like many news outlets, still struggles to manage journalists who have financial relationships with the subjects of their reporting.

In July, the Times suspended veteran sports reporter Karen Crouse when it emerged that she was co-authoring a book with former Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps at the same time she was glowingly covering Phelps for the Times. Around the same time, another undisclosed conflict of interest had to be corrected at the Times when a journalist quoted her literary agent as an independent expert. The newspaper later removed the quote.

And this followed a two-week period in March when the Times announced corrections—or “updates”—to twelve previously published columns from three different writers to address undisclosed conflicts of interest. This spate of corrections resulted not from the Times’s editorial due diligence, but because outside investigators publicized the newspaper’s ethical oversights.

The first corrections followed a BuzzFeed News report about columnist David Brooks’s paid work for an Aspen Institute project. Brooks wrote about the project (and one of its funders, Facebook) in the Times without disclosing his financial ties to Aspen, BuzzFeed reported. The Times agreed that Brooks’s work with Aspen Institute was a conflict of interest, and announced that he had resigned his paid position with the institute. The paper also announced it was issuing belated financial disclosures to several of his previously published columns (six by my count).

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It seemed like a robust response—but through another lens, the Times appears to be making Brooks the fall guy for its own ethical lapses. The writer had previously cleared the Aspen project with his editors. So while Twitter users roasted Brooks, they should have also been grilling the Times’s editors—who have a history of overlooking conflicts among columnists.

Last summer, buried at the end of a long CJR investigation, I reported that two Times columnists, David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg, had been writing about the Gates Foundation for years without disclosing that they work for an outside group, the Solutions Journalism Network, that is heavily funded by the foundation. The columnists acknowledged the undisclosed conflict and asked the Times to belatedly disclose their ties to Gates in several previously published columns. The Times never followed through. In 2020, it told me it wasn’t a priority.

In the wake of the Brooks scandal, I followed up with the paper. I contacted Kathleen Kingsbury, the editor of the opinion section. I had previously contacted Kingsbury in 2019 and got no response. Kingsbury told me that the Times was finally adding belated financial disclosures to Bornstein and Rosenberg’s previously published columns. She noted in March that new disclosures had been appended to four columns, and the Times was working through a technical hurdle to correct two additional columns.

But Kingsbury wouldn’t tell me which ones, or how the Times decided it only six needed disclosures. In my CJR investigation, I had found fifteen columns that mention Bill and Melinda Gates, their private foundation, or the work it funds. I located one corrected column, a glowing review of the Gates-funded World Mosquito Program, which I had highlighted in my CJR investigation. Yet, Rosenberg wrote about the project again in 2019, and that column remains uncorrected.

Kingsbury also wouldn’t address why the Times deemed Brooks’s financial engagement with Aspen was incompatible with his column, but Bornstein and Rosenberg’s ties to the Gates-funded Solutions Journalism Network were not. When I pushed the Times to explain, Eileen Murphy, senior vice president of corporate communications for the Times, would not provide clarification. “We’re comfortable with where we have landed on this issue,” she said.

Years before my story in CJR, Leonie Haimson, executive director of an NGO called Class Size Matters, contacted the Times with concerns about Rosenberg’s reporting on educational initiatives funded by Bill Gates. Haimson emailed the Times twice, but got no response. The columns she raised questions about remain uncorrected.

“Having a NYT columnist who is funded by Gates who regularly hypes controversial Gates-funded projects…without any disclosure of conflict of interest,” Haimson noted in her email to the Times, “could be compared to running columns on the environment by someone who runs an organization funded by Exxon/Mobil.”

Undisclosed conflicts in journalism seem to be less a problem of unethical reporters, and more a problem of newsrooms not enforcing ethical rules. The Society of Professional Journalists—and most newsrooms—have codes of ethics that instruct journalists, in the first place, to avoid conflicts of interest. Disclosure is a last resort, if conflicts are absolutely unavoidable. But even the best ethical codes are only as good as their enforcement by editors. 

Over the years, watchdogs have uncovered conflicted writers throughout journalism— The New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, Forbes, Motor Trend and elsewhere at the Times.  I, myself, have compelled Wired (twice), Vox, and the British Medical Journal to belatedly disclose conflicts. 

The Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California hosts an online news site whose contributing editor and frequent columnist William Heisel notes in his bio that he is the Director of Global Services for The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Client Services at the University of Washington. From this title, it’s hard to believe that readers will understand what Heisel actually does for a living: corporate fundraising for a university research institute whose clients have included: Chevron, Gilead Sciences, GSK, Merck, Novartis, Prudential Financial, Sanofi, Swiss Re and others. Many journalists and readers might see Heisel’s proximity to so many corporate and pharma interests as disqualifying him to also act as a journalist—or journalism educator—on health and medicine.

“It’s just the classic old thing….You just can’t write about people that you take money from. Certainly not people that you’re trying to go out and solicit money from. It makes it even worse,” notes Gary Schwitzer, head of the watchdog group HealthNewsReview, where Heisel, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, helped highlight ethical problems in health journalism years ago as a reviewer.

The center’s editor in chief, Michelle Levander, sees no ethical issues, saying Heisel hasn’t “used his column to systematically generate positive press or mentions of the pharmaceutical industry.” Levander would not say when she learned about Heisel’s industry ties, or share a full list of the corporate clients he has pursued—so it is unclear how she, or readers, could possibly begin to weigh potential bias or blindspots in Heisel’s reporting. 

Heisel, himself, also refused multiple requests for a complete list of corporate clients with whom he has worked.  “The nature and tone of your questions makes it clear that you and the Columbia Journalism Review are not interested in an objective story,” Heisel said.

Many editors, educational institutions, and ethics experts seem to send the message to reporters that conflicts of interest don’t matter.

In 2017, Schwitzer’s HealthNewsReview found that the Poynter Institute hosted a lavish journalism seminar funded by the alcohol industry, describing it as part of “a sophisticated campaign by the alcohol industry to sway public opinion.” Journalism schools have also taken on awkward conflicts, like University of Kansas professors partnering with pharmaceutical companies and University of Colorado with Coca-Cola.

The World Conference of Science Journalists in 2017—sponsored by pharmaceutical companies—included a session on conflicts of interest that garnered a provocative headline: “Whoever is free from conflicts of interest, let them throw the first stone!” 

It’s an odd framing, one that suggests that journalists feel they are being punished—unfairly—for their conflicts. But it also speaks to how normalized conflicts of interest have become—in a way that may limit journalism’s ability to interrogate, or even recognize, conflicts on their beats.

Tim Schwab is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC.