20/20 Blurs the Lines
Victor Neufeld runs 20/20, the second-most popular TV news magazine in U.S. media. Neufeld has been a top executive of 20/20 for 14 years—for the last seven, its executive producer with the final say on what the average 14 million viewers of the ABC news magazine get to see every Friday night. After 60 Minutes, 20/20 is the longest-running and most successful news magazine on the air.
The environment is an important issue with the U.S. public. Since Neufeld took over 20/20 in February 1987, few environmental segments have aired (averaging less than five a year), and these have included several making light of, or disputing environmental concerns.
Dozens of current and former 20/20 staffers interviewed for this article stressed that this pattern is attributable to decisions by Neufeld. To some 20/20 veterans, his negative attitude toward environmental stories—especially stories about the nuclear industry—seemed to be linked to the position of his wife, Lois, as the principal New York publicist in New York for the nuclear power industry, and a representative of other industrial clients.
Lois Neufeld runs Media Access Inc., a public relations outfit whose clients include the nuclear industry-financed U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, which describes itself as an entity that “builds understanding, acceptance and support for nuclear power among policy makers, opinion leaders and the public.” The group’s board consists of top executives from virtually every major company involved in nuclear power, including General Electric, Westinghouse and Bechtel.
Lois Neufeld’s job, according to Cathy Roche, director of media relations for the pro-nuclear group, is “to do media/public relations specifically with the electronic media in New York…. That is the group with whom she interacts in terms of helping them get steered where they need to get information, where they need to get industry perspective, for a story.”
Although Lois Neufeld refused to disclose her client list to Extra!, another of her major clients in recent years has been the Industry Coalition for the Environment, which includes the Chemical Manufacturers Association, American Petroleum Institute, National Association of Manufacturers, Society of the Plastics Industry, Du Font, General Motors and others.
“[We] often spoke about how it is impossible to get a nuclear power/nuclear energy story through Victor,” said one of the former top producers of 20/20. “Victor seemed to be closed-minded to environmental stories,” said another ex-20/20 staffer. “It was really insidious.”
Many See Conflict
During a three-month investigation involving some 125 interviews, current 20/20 staffers and former staffers told of stories critical of the nuclear industry being squelched, and of environmental stories being given a spin that minimized or denied environmental concerns. Many 20/20 staffers and ex-staffers interviewed asked that their names not be used, citing a fear of retaliation. “This is a very small industry,” said one ex-20/20 producer. However, some would speak on the record. “The situation undercuts the credibility of the news organization and that show, which used to have a good reputation,” declared Charles C. Thompson II, one of the original producers for 20/20 who left the program a year after Neufeld was promoted to be its executive producer. “In my years in television, I never saw anything like this—and these are important stories that deserve to be reported,” said added Thompson, now a producer for 60 Minutes.
“It’s a big conflict,” said Dan Goldfarb, formerly a producer with 20/20 and now a producer for Fox TV‘s Front Page. “Since Victor Neufeld took over 20/20, there has never been a story in any way critical of the nuclear industry or the chemical industry as far as I know. I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on.”
“It was common knowledge among the staff that Victor’s wife was connected to the nuclear and chemical industries, and the boss wasn’t interested in doing environmental stories,” said Ed Whitmore, a 10-year veteran of 20/20 and a former associate producer of the program. Indeed, since Neufeld took over 20/20, according to an inspection of its log, it has aired only one report involving nuclear energy: “The Power of Fear,” a Dec. 13, 1991 piece stressing positive aspects of irradiating food. The piece ended with correspondent John Stossel declaring that “I would now prefer” to eat radiation-exposed food.
Another environmental story aired was “Much Ado About Nothing?” (3/18/88), in which Stossel said of suspected links between toxic chemicals and cancer: “Sometimes it makes you feel as if nothing is safe. But today a number of well-respected scientists say, ‘This is nonsense.’… I think we in the press—many of us—have been irresponsible about these things. We consumer reporters especially often report on a scientist’s accusation that this substance causes cancer and make a big scare story out of it without really checking to see how good the research was.”
An Ethical Question
Dick Wald, the ABC senior vice president in charge of journalistic integrity and ethics, did not return Extra!‘s telephone calls or respond to letters requesting an interview about the 20/20 situation.
However, Extra! did interview professor Louis W. Hodges, who worked as an ABC consultant on ethics in the early ’80s. Hodges teaches applied journalistic ethics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics and the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. Speaking generally of relationships like the Neufelds’, he said: “If you have an intimate relationship with another human being, it’s very difficult not to share professional secrets, concerns, interests. Though they may try to separate their careers, they never can really know whether they are deceiving themselves in the belief that they are, in fact, doing so. On the face of it, this is a major conflict of interest.”
Turning to the specifics of the Neufelds’ situation Hodges continued: “Neufeld is the producer of 20/20. His wife is a public relations person for major economic interests. He is in a position to influence programming that will be sensitive to his wife’s concerns and being in that position at all is totally inappropriate whether he acts on it or not.”
Victor Neufeld refused to be interviewed by Extra! but he did issue a two-paragraph statement declaring, “All stories considered for 20/20 are evaluated on the basis of their inherent merit, news value and appropriateness. The suggestion that my wife has influenced any editorial decisions at 20/20 or at ABC in general is outrageous and totally without merit. Lois Neufeld and I have separate and independent careers and have always maintained a strict code of conduct that reflects only the highest ethical standards of my profession.”
“It is inconceivable that I would compromise my own integrity, or that of ABC News, to further the professional or personal gains of anyone close to me, be it my wife, a relative or a friend,” he wrote. He termed “any accusations by FAIR of impropriety on my part . . . irresponsible and slanderous.”
Lois Neufeld also declined to be interviewed by Extra! but did agree to answer written questions. Asked whether she sees a conflict of interest, she replied, “I have my career, and my husband has his, and we are both consummate professionals. The fact is a pro-nuclear story has never aired on 20/20,” she said seeming to ignore Stossell’s 1991 piece promoting food irradiation.
Current and former staffers at 20/20 gave specific examples of environmental stories that had been killed or altered. Several people said that their perception was that Victor Neufeld’s wife’s relationship to the nuclear and chemical industries was a factor that influenced what got on the air at 20/20.
Producers Don Thrasher and Bob Read were investigating in 1989 the use of defective bolts in industrial applications. They found that cheap, inferior bolts were being sold as quality bolts and used as fasteners on bridges, truck frames, airplanes and tanks. Late in their investigation, they found these bolts were also being used in nuclear power plants, and included a line in their script about this nuclear risk.
A week before the piece was to air, Victor Neufeld returned from giving a presentation at a U.S. Council for Energy Awareness conference. He was on a panel on “The News Media: Covering the Energy Issues” at the industry gathering held on April 18, 1989 in New Orleans, according to Scott Peters, the council’s manager of media services.[*]
Back at 20/20, going through the script for the segment entitled “Built To Break,” Neufeld stopped short at the line about bad bolts being used in nuclear plants.
He said that the nuclear industry people he met at the gathering were down on media, that “they hated us, didn’t trust us,” said a 20/20 staffer. and he had the line about bolts in nuclear plants dropped. What was left when the piece aired on April 28, 1989 were the words “nuclear power plants” in a general list of where the “bad bolts” were being used.
(Ironically, when the issue went on to another network, it faced censorship again. Peter Karl, a correspondent at WMAQ-TV, an NBC-owned Chicago station, expanded on the information first examined by 20/20 and developed an Emmy-winning multi-part series later that year that included a full segment on bad bolts in nuclear plants. But when Karl followed up his WMAQ reports for NBC‘s Today show, the piece’s reference to the use of substandard bolts in products made by General Electric—NBC‘s owner—was cut out by Today producers.)
No Nuke News?
20/20 producer Sharon Young was also reportedly frustrated in her efforts to do environmental stories. Young and Neufeld had an especially big confrontation over Young’s probe of “jumpers”—people who go from nuclear plant to nuclear plant doing maintenance work in highly radioactive areas, and consequently absorb substantial amounts of radiation.
Young obtained footage for the prospective segment and considered it “spectacular,” according to former 20/20 producer Thompson. “Victor killed the piece, she told me,” said Thompson. “She was very public about it. She sat in the office next to me and she was very disturbed. She put a lot of work into it. She empathized with these people and was angry that she was not going to be able to tell their story. She was locked out.”
Another 20/20 colleague, who also had an office near Young’s, said Young declared that “there would never be a story on our air that would be in any way critical of the nuclear industry as long as Victor and Lois are part of the show…. There’ll never be an investigation as long as Victor and Lois are part of 20/20.”
Lois Neufeld told Extra!, “I do not recall any interaction with Sharon Young about a story on ‘jumpers.'” Sharon Young, who no longer works at ABC, would not discuss her work at 20/20 with Extra!
Another nuclear technology story rejected by Victor Neufeld involved problems at the Rocky Flats federal nuclear facility in Colorado, at that time operated by Rockwell International, which later pleaded guilty to 10 criminal counts involving safety violations and paid a fine of $18.5 million.
“An outside source came to me with an extensive story about problems with safety at Rocky Flats,” said a former producer at 20/20. “I thought it was a strong story. [Senior editor] Meredith [White] thought it was a strong story. It was his [Victor Neufeld’s] call.” Although the same issue was soon to blow up as a major national story, Neufeld decided it “wasn’t strong enough to program.”
The producer was aware that Lois Neufeld “was a PR person for the nuclear industry” but said he didn’t “have any real recollection of any influence Lois had on decisions.” To him, it was simply a matter of Victor Neufeld not wanting to do stories on nuclear energy.
A 20/20 segment called “Allergic to Living” (3/1/91) began with the “good intentions” of senior editor White to do a piece on people reporting health impacts from chemical pollution, according to former 20/20 staffer Whitmore. But under Victor Neufeld’s management, it ended up “mocking” such people instead, he said.
White “had a file full of letters from viewers who suffered from multiple chemical sensitivities, or MCS,” Whitmore related. “Then Victor saw a New York Times piece making fun of an isolated community of extreme MCS sufferers in Texas, and commissioned the story for 20/20.” When Whitmore first met with the segment producer, Allan Maraynes: “I told him of Victor’s wife’s connection with the chemical industry, and expressed my concern that we would merely be making fun of people adversely affected by chemicals. He assured me that we would do a balanced story, but of course it didn’t turn out that way.”
As associate producer on the piece, Whitmore said he gathered “all relevant research” into the “growing body of scientific evidence” about the validity of chemical sensitivities. “I shared this information with Alan, but it was not included in the one-sided, unbalanced story…. I felt so badly about the story that was put together that I called the people in Texas prior to broadcast to warn them that our story was worse than the New York Times story.”
During his research, Whitmore found a “briefing paper” attempting to debunk the notion of chemical sensitivities that was issued by the Chemical Manufacturers Association, one of the groups Lois Neufeld represented as part of the Industry Coalition for the Environment.
Maraynes, who is now 20/20‘s investigative broadcast producer, told Extra! that it was he who spotted the Times story, pointed it out to Neufeld and got clearance from him to do the story. He denied that any such conversation with Whitmore about Lois Neufeld ever took place. Maraynes defended the piece as balanced and reflective of the situation.
Asked about the propriety of her getting involved in stories that 20/20 was developing Lois Neufeld replied: “On rare occasion a 20/20 producer will call and ask for names of people to call for more information, and I am pleased to give them— as well as producers from other shows who call—names of people they can call.”
Access to network television media in New York is Lois Neufeld’s strong point, according to Jack LaCovey, a Washington, D.C.-based PR person who worked with her for the Industry Coalition for the Environment. It’s why, LaCovey said, she was retained in 1989 to represent the coalition in New York.
“If you are talking about a lot of the shows,” LaCovey told Extra!, “television programs in which we were interested in participating, a lot of them are headquartered in New York. That’s where the decisions are made. I mean, [ABC‘s] Good Morning America, for example, has got a Washington bureau, but the decisions are made in New York and so that’s why we used Lois and she was able to do a pretty good job of keeping tabs on who was planning to do what, which was important to us.”
“I mean, it’s one thing,” said LaCovey, now director of communications for the Society of the Plastics Industry, “to go and say, ‘I got a story for you I would like you to run.’ It’s quite another thing to know that a given network is planning to do something in an area in which you have an interest.”
Lois Neufeld’s knowledge of future programming on ABC amazed some of those who worked on a 1985 program on nuclear power at the network’s documentary unit. “We ran into a strange situation,” recounted a producer on the project. Soon after the project began, when it was known to only a small “circle of producers” at ABC, Lois Neufeld made an “unsolicited approach.” Phone calls from her to various people associated with the project “came out of the blue. . . . Her message was: ‘I know what you guys are up to.’”
Lois Neufeld “made it clear . . . that she had the idea that we were getting things wrong,” said the staffer. She “persistently” kept calling those involved on the project. “We resented the interference.”
Dick Richter, executive producer of the nuclear documentary, titled “The Fire Unleashed,” said: “It seemed to me to be an improper utilization of entree, entree that she had because she met many of us socially and used this as a springboard to make calls that were consequently improper.”
While executive producer of ABC World News Tonight, Richter hired Victor Neufeld for his first job at ABC. (Richter is now the executive producer of news and public affairs at D.C.’s public TV station, WETA-TV.) Told that the Neufelds maintain that they lead totally separate professional lives, Richter said: “You can say that, of course. . . . But I certainly think it’s stretching the morality factor a bit here.”
Lois Neufeld said: “I learned about the ABC documentary from government sources and others who had been called by the ABC documentary unit. I called the ABC producer and made my client’s position clear. Unfortunately for my client, the producer ignored the information provided, and nothing could have been more negative towards the nuclear industry than the documentary that aired.”
Industry’s Earth Day
LaCovey said he linked up with Lois Neufeld to work together on the campaign for the Industry Coalition for the Environment through Potomac Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations company. He said he “bid [to do] the job in conjunction with Potomac” and “Potomac had used her services before and was very satisfied.”
Bill Perkins, a partner in Potomac, told Extra! that he first met Lois Neufeld in 1980 when he was a PR person for the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness and she was with DWJ, a New Jersey-based “media firm” that worked for the council. After he formed Potomac in 1981 he said he used Lois Neufeld as “a sub-contractor” several times. “Over the years, whenever we’ve had a client that needed some New York representation, she’s one of two or three people who we’ve asked to help us out.”
Perkins said he was aware that Lois Neufeld was married to Victor Neufeld. “Yeah, I heard about that several years ago. I’d like to meet him sometime, I’ve never met him.” He saw no conflict in Victor Neufeld as a top ABC executive and Lois Neufeld as a PR person dealing with ABC and other TV networks.
Perkins said the Industry Coalition for the Environment was set up to blunt some of the criticism that industry expected to receive on Earth Day 1990. On the first Earth Day, in 1970 “industry made a huge mistake,” he said. “Industry kind of stiffed it, and either ignored it or thumbed their nose at it, or made it sound like a Communist front or something…. And so we were out there,” for the 1990 event.
Lois Neufeld didn’t let her representation of the Industry Coalition for the Environment go unnoticed at 20/20. Extra! obtained a copy of a seven-page press release for the effort, dated February 23, 1990, sent to 20/20 producer Nola Safro on the letterhead of Media Access Inc. On the front page above Lois Neufeld’s name and phone number is the statement: “THE ENVIRONMENT… It’s one of the biggest subjects of the 1990s, spurred on by the upcoming EARTH DAY, April 22, and we can help you cover it… The attached describes the group and outlines five industry and environmental success stories—others will be forthcoming. We hope in the interest of presenting the full picture to the American public, you will find these stories as important as we do. You can reach me at the number below or I’ll be in touch with you in a few days to see what can we do for you.”
Also on the first page was Lois Neufeld’s handwritten note to 20/20 producer Safro: “Dear No—Here’s what I’m up to—How about theater? Best, Lo.”
Lois Neufeld commented on her sending press releases to 20/20 personnel: “Like all public relations professionals, I maintain a mailing list of thousands of media people at a variety of newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television shows, including 20/20, to whom I send press releases.”
“Her role as a public relations professional is based on her own talents and her own abilities as someone who’s worked in this industry for many years,” the Council for Energy Awareness’ Roche said of Lois Neufeld. “The suggestion that just because her husband works in the industry she has no right to pursue her own career is sexism to the worst degree.”
20/20 marked Earth Day 1990 with a segment on pollution in the former East Germany (“Welcome to Hell,” 4/20/90)—reportedly one of the few stories on the environment that Victor Neufeld liked. “It shows what the Commies are doing there is just as bad as we are,” a 20/20 staffer said he happily exclaimed after viewing it.
The New Era
Before Neufeld took over the executive producer’s spot at 20/20, the program did do a number of stories on nuclear energy. One big report involved pollution at the government’s Fernald nuclear weapons facility in Ohio. Neufeld, after he took over the show, rejected doing an update on a major new development on Fernald: the government admitting its plant had discharged thousands of pounds of radioactive material into the air and water, and agreeing to pay a total of $78 million to some 14,000 residents around the facility who had been affected. Neufeld said he “didn’t see the significance in the government’s admission that damage had been done,” said a 20/20 source.
“This was a story that Av Westin thought was significant,” said former 20/20 producer Thompson. “It blew my mind that Victor didn’t see the importance of it.”
Av Westin became executive producer of 20/20 in 1979, a year after the show’s beginning, and held the post until 1987, when he was ousted for circulating a memo seen as critical of 20/20 president Roone Arledge (Washington Post, 2/27/87). Neufeld, who was Westin’s principal deputy, was promoted by Arledge to Westin’s job.
“I know she [Lois Neufeld] is a lobbyist I do remember that Lois had a business essentially promoting nuclear stuff,” said Westin, now a senior vice president of Time Warner‘s television division. But no “story originated with her. I don’t think we ever got any story she would have planted.” That’s because, said Westin, he ran the show in a way some called “hallway productions,” patrolling the halls and otherwise keeping close touch on “what’s up, what’s doing” with every 20/20 project. He said he insisted on a “high degree of balance, of fairness.”
While Westin does not have firsthand knowledge of how Victor Neufeld handled stories on issues that intersected with his wife’s PR work, he said that if “Victor’s crossed the line, that is severely dangerous to Victor, dangerous to the magazine show.”
In the 18 months after Neufeld took over 20/20, there was a staff exodus. “There was a loss of confidence in Victor Neufeld’s editorial ability and ethical judgments—that’s what I told Neufeld and ABC‘s then-general counsel, Steve Sadicario,” said Thompson, who resigned at that time.
“He was not open to new ideas,” said Judith Moses, who also quit. “Victor didn’t seem to be interested in the world.”
Eric Tait, who also resigned as a 20/20 producer during this period, told Extra! that “trying to compare Victor and Av [Westin] is comparing apples and oranges…. Under [Neufeld’s] stewardship, you don’t get the same hard-hitting investigative pieces that you did under his predecessor.”
But Neufeld has been able to mute much criticism of his tenure at 20/20. The New York Times published an article (7/21/88) reporting on major problems the program was having under Neufeld. Its lead noted that while the show was preparing for “a 10th anniversary broadcast, half the producers on the program were quietly looking for work elsewhere,” and noted that a main reason given by “many staff members” was “growing dissatisfaction with the leadership of the executive producer, Victor Neufeld.”
Neufeld and ABC staged an attack on the Times piece. “The whole ABC news organization did a full court press and tried to do spin control after the piece came out,” said Jeremy Gerard, the Times reporter who wrote the article. “Victor wrote a three-page single-spaced letter to Max Frankel,” the Times‘ executive editor. The “social ties between the New York Times and ABC” were utilized, and the Times issued what Gerard, now a reporter at Variety, considered an unwarranted correction. Spy (10/88) devoted two separate columns to the ABC/Neufeld offensive.
20/20 also did PR “damage control,” said Whitmore, on Neufeld’s decision to go with a 1990 interview with a grocery store clerk who 20/20 said was the actor who played Buckwheat in Little Rascals. According to Whitmore, the segment was aired despite warnings in the days before the broadcast—including calls from George McFarland, who played Spanky, the Little Rascals’ leader—that Bill Thomas, the real Buckwheat, had died several years earlier. “It was an avoidable embarrassment that greatly hurt the credibility of the show,” said Whitmore. But 20/20 was able to “keep the lid on information that we had advance knowledge that our Buckwheat was an imposter.”
Libertarian “Bully Pulpit”
Complementing Neufeld’s attitude at 20/20 on environmental stories, said Whitmore, has been leading correspondent John Stossel. According to Whitmore and other 20/20 staffers, Stossel has a strong libertarian perspective and likes to do stories that stress getting “government off our back.” “Victor’s posture on environmental issues,” said Whitmore, “works hand-in-glove with John’s libertarian philosophy. John used the broadcast as a bully pulpit whenever possible criticizing government regulation. Of course, who is being regulated? Big industries like the nuclear and chemical industries.”
Stossel’s “Clean Up Your Act” segment (8/21/92) spotlighted Donald Stedman, a chemistry professor who designed a machine that was described by the libertarian magazine Reason (8-9/90) as a “portable sensing device to rapidly check cars and identify gross polluters,” which could substitute for the “enormous bureaucracy” for air-monitoring the government sought. “There’s a natural bias against solutions that are small and cheap, because the way to have power in government is to run a big empire and they already have this huge empire in emissions testing,” Stossel said in concluding the segment. “So who in the bureaucracy wants to stand up and say, ‘I’ll take a pay cut and run a smaller program?'”
In “Much Ado About Nothing?” (3/18/88), Stossel said: “When we ban cyclamates, people eat more sugar. When we ban pesticides, insects destroy more of our crops and food costs more and sometimes the replacement pesticides prove even more dangerous. And what about when government evacuates a town like Times Beach, Mo.? Several years ago, the government shut the town down because traces of dioxin were found in the soil…. Now the EPA says dioxin may be 16 times less dangerous than they thought during the Times Beach scare.” (Such claims about dioxin have been widely discredited—see Wall Street Journal, 2/20/92; Extra!, 1-2/92.)
Another Stossel segment, “The Town That Loves Garbage” (1/10/92), touted the economic benefits of landfills. “Many environmental groups now say, ‘We can’t keep dumping this stuff. Landfills are filling up, so we must change our lifestyle, give up some conveniences,’” Stossel stated in his introduction. “Of course, none of this would be necessary if we just opened some new landfills, but try to do that and you hear from the neighbors.” In his conclusion, Stossel explained why more towns don’t want landfills: “There’s all this hysteria over bad dumps, and the improvements in technology that have made this possible have been gradual and they just haven’t made news.”
Stossel wouldn’t speak to Extra! about the relationship between Lois Neufeld and 20/20, or give any comment other than to make a personal attack on this writer as an “anti-radiation hysteric.”
And what of people who see themselves as victims of the handling of environmental issues under Neufeld’s stewardship of 20/20? The main group in the U.S. challenging food irradiation, Food & Water, protested 20/20‘s airing of the report promoting food irradiation by Stossel. FAIR joined the criticism (Extra!, 3/92). Michael Colby, Food & Water executive director, apprised of FAIR’S current investigation of 20/20, commented: “It was obvious from the beginning that the 20/20 piece on food irradiation was a mean-spirited hatchet job on Food & Water and this new evidence begins to shed light on that incident.”
Sue Pitman, one of those interviewed in the chemical sensitivities piece, told Extra!: “The piece was fraught with ridicule, and there are scars in the community ever since.” The members of the 20/20 crew were sympathetic, recounted Pitman. But the final 20/20 segment aimed to “make us look like a bunch, of crazy people and try to show that environmental problems are not real.”
[*] ABC News‘ policy manual required that Neufeld request permission “in writing” before making the speech. Walter Forges, ABC senior vice president for standards at the time, who would have had to grant permission, said he did not recall whether or not a request was made. Neufeld declined to answer a specific written question about who he received permission from at ABC to make the speech and also declined to say who paid his expenses. Peters said Neufeld declined an honorarium.
As a full professor of journalism at the State University of New York, Karl Grossman lectures on media ethics. An investigative journalist specializing in environmental repots for print and television, his books include. Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed To Know About Nuclear Power
Sidebar: By the Book
ABC did not furnish FAIR a copy of its ABC News policy manual. However, from other sources, FAIR obtained major excerpts of the manual.
Under “Objectivity in the Performance of Duties,” the manual states: “Those of us who work in news share a paramount responsibility to maintain our reputation for fairness, accuracy and impartiality. Any action that damages that reputation, or even gives the appearance of compromising it, harms both ABC News and the individuals involved.”
“We must never be obligated to any interest other than the public’s interest in the full, fair and accurate reporting of the news,” the manual continues. “Clearly, this means that employees must accept no payment, gift or other consideration which is intended to compromise their responsibilities as objective newspersons, or which gives the appearance of doing so. This prohibition covers all obvious forms of payola, plugola and all other forms of blatant bribery. But our policy also prohibits more subtle efforts to compromise the integrity of ABC News. No policy can cover every contingency or spell out an answer to every question. If any doubt arises, do not assume you know the answer. Ask your executive producer or bureau chief for an interpretation or decision.”
Sidebar:ABC‘s Ethics Author To Neufelds’ Situation
While ABC‘s management would not comment on the ethical questions raised by Victor Neufeld’s involvement in stories that parallel his wife’s PR work, Extra! did talk to the ABC employee who crafted the network’s ethical guidelines.
“I don’t think that we had then or have now a policy that could or perhaps should deal with the respective careers or interests of husbands and wives,” said George Watson, who was the first person at ABC to develop a system of ethical standards to cover the news staff at the network. As ABC vice president of news from 1980 to 1985, he wrote–and enforced–the ABC News policy manual.
“Increasingly, 1 think, spouses do each have separate and distinct careers, and I think that creates a problem for them in strictly separating what is private and what is professional,” he told Extra!.
Watson, who is still with ABC News as senior contributing editor, said he was “not familiar” with Victor Neufeld’s tenure as 20/20‘s executive producer, which began after Watson changed jobs. “But I know him to be a professional journalist and honorable person so I would take him at his word if he says that his wife’s… clients do not affect his treatment of stories for 20/20. I would imagine he would be vigilant to prevent any implication that was so.”
Watson said when he was in charge of ethics for ABC News, “we counted on people keeping things separate.” But at ABC, he said, “I don’t remember a similar situation” to that of the Neufelds, “where one spouse was responsible for making editorial decisions and another represented… organizations that would have interests in editorial issues.”
Of a possible parallel with the judiciary, whose canon of ethics demand that judges recuse themselves when a matter involving a family member is before them, Watson said: “No, we didn’t have any system for recusing oneself, but perhaps that’s something that should be thought about as people more and more encounter situations of that sort.”
The only “comparable example” Watson could think of in the broader media scene to the situation involving Victor and Lois Neufeld concerns CBS White House correspondent Rita Braver and her husband, Robert Barnett, who has served as a personal legal adviser for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Barnett helped the Clintons’ presidential campaign by playing the part of George Bush during practice debates.
University of Connecticut journalism professor Marcel Dufresne wrote in Newsday (10/14/93) that assigning Braver to cover the White House when her husband is one of the president’s advisors “violated almost every journalistic code of ethics,” and suggested that it represented either “ignorance or arrogance” at CBS. In an interview with Extra!, Barnett said he ended any professional contact with the Clintons after his wifes new assignment.