Serious Ethical Questions Arising From Journalist’s Participation In Koch Event

CREDIT: ABC's This Week's Twitter feed

ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl will moderate a forum featuring three prominent GOP Senators on Sunday at an event hosted by a conservative political organization that has been called “the Koch Brothers’ secret bank.” While the event will be closed to media and the public — though streamed online — ThinkProgress has learned that ABC News will be paying for Karl’s travel and lodging for the Palm Springs, CA event.

Politico reported on Thursday that Karl will ask questions of Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) at the “American Recovery Policy Forum,” hosted by the Kochs’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. An ABC tweet boasted that the panel would feature “three of the most talked-about GOP 2016 hopefuls.”

But some journalism ethics experts told ThinkProgress that this might cross the line from neutral reporting to aiding a political organization, as Karl’s presence lends a measure of credibility to billionaire oil magnates David and Charles Koch and their anti-government political network.

Marc Cooper, director of Annenberg Digital News and an associate professor of professional practice at the University of Southern California’s School for Communication and Journalism, said that Karl’s involvement amounts to “an in-kind contribution to a partisan group that is clearly aimed at positioning for the 2016 race,” noting, “The public has no input or access and no public service is being performed. Karl has no business being there.”

Todd Gitlin, who chairs the Ph.D program in communications at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, agreed, arguing that it is inappropriate for a news reporter to “promote a sectarian political show,” particularly one that is sponsored by climate change-deniers like the Kochs.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, took a more nuanced position. “It appears that Karl has negotiated an arrangement that should allow him to act reasonably independently. He’s not being paid, he’s given free rein on the questions he can ask, and ABC news doesn’t get any more access than any other media,” she said, therefore she does not consider Karl’s participation or ABC’s financial involvement a contribution to the Kochs’ group. But, even she had qualms about Karl’s participation: “I do think it is problematic when working journalists ‘moderate’ gatherings of political groups, industry groups, etc. — especially when those groups or topics relate to the beats they cover.” She added that she sees “a huge difference between doing this kind of partisan event as opposed to, for example, moderating a gathering of the League of Women Voters,” and that when journalists participate in “closed” events, it can undermine the fight for access and the public’s right to know.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and “avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”

This is not the first time Karl’s journalistic biases and ethics have been under scrutiny. In 2011, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting noted that Karl was an alum of a media training program aimed at promoting conservative media on college campuses (it highlights Karl as a prominent alum, along with conservative stalwarts Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Maggie Gallagher, and Laura Ingraham). The group highlighted numerous cases in which he’d made comments that appeared to favor a right-wing position, including praise for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) controversial budget plans.

In 2013, Karl had to apologize for an incorrect report in which he mischaracterized White House emails related to the 2012 attacks at U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya and falsely suggested ABC News had reviewed them, when he was relying on an anonymous source. Media experts called the botched report “sloppy” and “inaccurate.”

ABC News and Karl declined to comment for this story.