Jan 9 2004

Are George Will’s Conflicts None of Your Business?

George F. Will, columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, devoted his column on March 4, 2003 to the thoughts of press baron Conrad Black. After spending two paragraphs describing complaints about George W. Bush’s preparations for the invasion of Iraq, Will wrote: “Into this welter of foolishness has waded Conrad Black, a British citizen and member of the House of Lords who is a proprietor of many newspapers, including the Telegraph of London and the SunTimes of Chicago.” Almost the entire remainder of the column is devoted to relating Black’s views on U.S. foreign policy.

In the column, Will failed to mention that he has been a paid employee of Conrad Black, who named Will, along with several other mostly conservative luminaries, to the international advisory board of Black’s Hollinger International. Each time he attended the board’s annual meetings, the New York Times revealed (12/22/03), Will received compensation of $25,000. Queried by the Times, Will could not recall how many meetings he had attended, but fellow board member William F. Buckley estimated his own take at “perhaps $200,000 or more.”

Asked whether he should have revealed that the mogul whose views he was promoting had paid him substantial sums of money, Will told the Times, “My business is my business,” adding, “Got it?” Apparently he keeps his business to himself; the Washington Post Writers Group’s editorial director and general manager, Alan Shearer, did not know about Black’s payments to Will, according to the Times. “I think I would have liked to have known,” the paper quoted Shearer as saying.

In a response to a letter from a reader criticizing Will’s failure to disclose his conflict of interest, however, Shearer defended his columnist. “George’s service on the Hollinger advisory board ended two years before Will quoted Black in a column. And the column was not about Black; it quoted a speech by Black in service of a point George was making about national sovereignty.”

Readers can judge for themselves whether a financial relationship that involves tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars is no longer significant after two years. On the second point, Shearer is inaccurate: Black is quoted or cited by name in five of the column’s eight paragraphs, making it substantially a column about Black.

The letter writer had cited other examples of Will failing to disclose conflicts of interest, including Will’s commenting on the 1980 debate between President Jimmy Carter and candidate Ronald Reagan, after helping Reagan prepare for the debate by playing the role of a journalist in a rehearsal. Shearer described this charge as “misinformation,” saying that Will “revealed his presence at the rehearsal on the air with [ABC‘s] Ted Koppel following the debate the next day.”

What Will actually told Koppel was, ”I had a chance to see a bit of the preparation for the debate as an observer” (New York Times, 7/9/83). By referring to himself as an “observer” of a rehearsal that he actually participated in, he was not disclosing his role but concealing it.

Will’s relationship with Black– undisclosed even to his editor at the Writers Group– would seem to be a clear violation of the Post‘s conflict of interest policy: “This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible…. We work for no one except the Washington Post without permission from supervisors. Many outside activities and jobs are incompatible with the proper performance of work on an independent newspaper…. All reporters and editors, wherever they may work, are required to disclose to their department head any financial interests that might be in conflict or give the appearance of a conflict in their reporting or editing duties…. It is important that no freelance assignments and no honoraria be accepted that might in any way be interpreted as disguised gratuities.”

But these rules, seemingly strict on paper, are apparently more flexible in practice. “We tend to lean toward disclosure, but in this case we feel disclosure would not have been necessary,” the Writers Group’s Shearer wrote in response to criticism.

ACTION: Please let the Washington Post Writers Group know whether you think George Will’s having received many thousands of dollars from the subject of a column is something that you believe that column should have disclosed.

CONTACT:Alan Shearer, Editorial Director and General Manager Washington Post Writers Group writersgrp@washpost.com