Paying journalists to appear on government broadcasts abroad is legal, but the practice raises thorny ethical questions for reporters.
From the Fall 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 24.
By Karl D. Olson
In Argentina this summer, Miami TV reporter Juan Manuel Cao pointedly questioned Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in a recorded exchange. Castro replied by asking, “Who pays you?”
The answer, it turns out, was the U.S. government. The Miami Herald reported that Cao received more than $10,000 through a government program that paid at least 49 journalists to appear on Radio Martí and TV Martí, two U.S. broadcast organizations that espouse anti-Castro views and transmit solely to Cuba.
The revelations have shocked journalists who say the case of the South Florida reporters is part of a disturbing wave of media payoffs that raises serious concerns about the media’s credibility, especially in the international community.
“How sad that Fidel Castro had a better understanding of what was motivating these people than did their readers or their employers,” said Lee Wilkins, a professor and media ethicist at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Among the South Florida journalists who took payments were reporters for El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister newspaper of The Miami Herald. The newspaper fired three reporters, then offered them their jobs back several weeks later, citing unclear newsroom communication about the paper’s ethics policy.
But the controversy prompted the publisher who oversaw both papers, Jesus Diaz Jr., to quit after trying to spike two Miami Herald columns about the Martí affair.
Cao did not return calls for comment. But he has denied the implication that his question to Castro was fueled by a government payoff rather than his interest in the answer.
In an August letter to the Herald, Cao states that he spent three years in Cuban prisons for his writing against the regime, and turned down a high-paying network job because he refused to refer to Castro as the “Cuban president” instead of “Cuban dictator.”
“As you see, my motivation in the life is not money,” Cao wrote. “My motivation is Cuba and its freedom. I am proud to collaborate with TV Martí in trying to break Castro’s censorship.”
Castro’s comment to Cao may have been offhand, said Sam Terilli, media law professor at the University of Miami and former general counsel to The Miami Herald. But he said it could encourage what is already a common viewpoint among foreigners.
“People who don’t like what the American media are reporting are very quick to assume they are in bed with the American government,” he said.
The Miami case is the latest in a string of incidents in which government agencies paid journalists for favorable coverage.
The Defense Department acknowledged in November a contract with the Lincoln Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations company that promotes U.S. government interests in the Middle East and Central Asia. Part of the contract included planting American-written articles in Iraqi newspapers and paying stipends to friendly Iraqi journalists for favorable treatment, according to The Associated Press.
Pentagon officials voided the TV and radio portion of that contract in July, citing cost-cutting measures, according to The New York Times. A Lincoln Group spokesman and the U.S. military confirmed a new two-year contract in September.
Government payouts to international media are not illegal. An internal investigation by the Pentagon released in March found that government contracts with the Lincoln Group and other consulting firms did not violate military policy.
And because TV and Radio Martí broadcast only to Cuba, they fall under guidelines similar to Voice of America. According to the 1983 legislation that created Radio Martí, the program is designed “to provide for open communication of information and ideas through the use of radio broadcasting to Cuba.”
Domestic cases have a different standard. Each appropriations act since 1951 prohibits any government organization from spending money “for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by the Congress,” according to the Government Accountability Office.
However, spending money for disseminating video news releases or newspaper articles is legal when agencies clearly identify for their audience that the agency was the source. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced a bill that would permanently prohibit all forms of propaganda in January 2005. The bill has been stalled in committee.
In 2004, Armstrong Williams, a TV and radio host, accepted payments from the Department of Education to promote the No Child Left Behind initiative set forth by the Bush administration. After USA Today exposed the program, Williams said the education initiative was a cause he believed in, thus justifying his $240,000 payment.
Congressional investigators found that the Bush administration’s promotion of its education initiatives was illegal “covert propaganda,” and Williams agreed in October to pay $34,000 to settle the case, ending a civil investigation of the deal.
Two more questionable cases have surfaced at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The department paid $21,500 to columnist Maggie Gallagher for bolstering the Bush marriage initiative in her National Review Online articles. It also paid $10,000 to Michael McManus, a weekly columnist and director of a nonprofit group called Marriage Savers. Officials claim McManus was paid to train counselors about marriage.
Even though government payments to international media outlets are not unlawful, they can pose ethical problems. Abi Wright, a spokeswoman for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said they send a “troubling” message to independent reporters in a country such as Iraq where the U.S. has pledged its support for democracy and a free and independent media.
“These kinds of practices are all too common in the Middle East where governments often give cash for coverage and whereindependent journalism is the exception rather than the norm,” Wright said.
Terilli, however, believes the circumstances and location of the Pentagon contracts make a difference. Because the Lincoln Group fulfills its contract in Iraq, the standards are less clear-cut, he said.
“What the Pentagon does in a foreign country that is a war zone is very different than domestically,” Terilli said. “It falls under the category: It’s war, it’s hell.”
Even with that justification, Terilli believes planting articles is an unwise use of money. He supports U.S. government officials’ right to print articles and voice their opinions but said identifying the source is equally important.
“People are pretty good at spotting propaganda for what it is,” Terilli said. “There is nothing wrong with the government speaking, but if it’s good information, good reporting, and good journalism, we should have nothing to hide.”
However some fear that stories bought and paid for by the U.S. government endanger objective American journalists overseas.
Sudanese officials’ misgivings were apparent in August when Paul Salopek of the Chicago Tribune was arrested. The government charged him with espionage and printing “false news,” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter was held for more than a month.
Salopek’s release facilitated by intense negotiations with State Department officials, journalism organizations and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson came before the Martí reports.
A recent editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune charges that the U.S. government payments in the Martí case could further the international suspicion by confirming that some journalists are working with the government, thereby making a future situation similar to Salopek’s more difficult for reporters.
Anytime people’s suspicions are proved to be accurate by a government payoff, it makes it harder for those of us who are honest.”
Ethicists believe members of the media must draw a clear line between their journalistic duties and their outside work. “Journalists need to decide where their loyalties are and accept the consequences that go along with it,” said Wilkins, the co-author of The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason About Ethics.
Another aspect of the payoffs that troubles some experts is that it shows a disregard for foreign journalists who endure low wages and often dangerous working conditions.
In the Martí case, the journalists’ payments totaled as much as $175,000 since 2001. Journalists take for granted the wages they earn in the United States, Wilkins said. They are paid enough to support a family and do many other things that foreign journalists cannot afford.
“Part of the reason we are so well-compensated is so that, as individuals and as news organizations, we will be able to assure to the public that the news is not for sale to the highest bidder,” Wilkins said.
Terilli agreed. “I don’t know many reporters who are at the poverty level,” he said.