CREDIT: Screenshot via NBCNews.com
Last February, the world caught a glimpse George W. Bush’s paintings through work of a hacker named Guccifier. The paintings were amateurish and charming and slightly embarrassing for a former president. They famously included self-portraits of him bathing.
On Friday, Bush decided to show off a series of paintings of world leaders in a more controlled fashion — in an exclusive interview with his daughter, NBC News special correspondent Jenna Bush Hager. As part of a package on the Today Show, Hager also interviewed her mother and grandmother, who she called Gamms, to get their reactions to Bush’s artwork.
Some sample dialogue from Hager: “So congratulations Dad, this is pretty exciting!”; “Do you think you got to the soul of you?”; “Maybe you don’t think you are a great artist but you take it very seriously.”
— Jenna Bush Hager (@JennaBushHager) April 3, 2014
The segment was undeniably a commercial success for NBC News. A search of Google News reveals hundreds of publications picked up on their “exclusive” story. But, as a journalistic outlet, what are the ethical implications of turning over an interview with a former President to his own daughter?
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” Three experts in ethics and journalism contacted by ThinkProgress all raised substantial concerns with the segment.
Marc Cooper, a professor at the Annenberg School For Communication And Journalism at the the University of Southern California, said the segment “helps erode any lingering hope the public might have that these powerful news organizations have much intention to hold the powerful accountable and instead prefer to cater to their children and play patsy with their parents.” Cooper added that “networks long ago abandoned any serious ethical standards, especially for its morning shows.”
“The disgrace of network broadcasting is always making new bottoms,” said Todd Gitlin, professor and chair of the Ph.D. program at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Gitlin noted that there were any number of serious questions NBC News could and should pose to former President Bush, including for example the Iraq War, the collapse of the financial system, and his inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change. Instead, according to Gitlin, NBC “pretties up the self-indulgence of the president… those are the journalism ethics in charge… as satire, this is rock-bottom stuff.”
Bill Reader, a professor of journalism at Ohio University, had fewer concerns with the ethics of interview. “I am thinking it is really not much different than when NPR reporters interview their parents for cutesy Mother’s Day or Father’s Day features,” Reader said. Rather his concerns center on the energy spent “on a pointless puff piece about ‘daddy’s painting hobby'” which he calls “a vapid waste of time.”
This is not the first time NBC has had Hager interview her family members on national TV. In July 2013, she interviewed her grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush, for a soft-focus piece on his decision to shave his head in solidarity with a sick 2-year-old that aired on NBC Nightly News. When Hager was hired in 2009, Today Show executive producer Jim Bell said that “he didn’t consider the job as a down payment for a future interview with her father.”
NBC has also been subject to criticism for hiring Chelsea Clinton as a “special correspondent.” She produced several generally fluffy segments for the NBC show Rock Center, which was later canceled.