By Sheldon Rampton on November 25, 2008

"Dan Abrams, the chief legal correspondent for NBC News who recently lost his prime-time cable news show, is forming a consulting firm that he hopes will connect a global Rolodex of media experts with businesses that need strategic advice," reports Brian Stelter. "The firm, Abrams Research, may resemble a narrowly focused version of 'expert network' firms that connect investors to industry experts. Journalists and bloggers retained and paid by the firm could consult with corporations, conduct media training sessions, or conduct investigative reporting for corporate clients." Abrams Research says it has also "established strategic partnerships with major PR and media strategy firms" including Dan Klores Communications and the Abernathy MacGregor Group. As Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal points out, "This is about as clear a violation of our conflict of interest rules as I can imagine. Journalists shouldn't be advising companies about how to game their own organization." Similar concerns have been expressed by journalists at CBS News and others. However, NBC seems to think that Abrams can continue to work as both a professional flack and as one of their journalists. "NBC News could not have been more accommodating throughout this process," he told TVNewser, adding that he would be "staying on as the Chief Legal Analyst for NBC News and hope to remain with NBC for many years to come."

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Comments

I must admit this is my first visit to your site and I would hope that the rest of the pieces don't contain the sorts of fundamental errors and "spin" contained here.

1) I am no longer a "journalist" at NBC. Rather I am an outside analyst just like every other outside political and/or legal analyst at every other network. They have outside clients and/or they work for private entitites and so do I.

The "Center for Media and Democracy" got that basic fact wrong? Wow.

2) Just because others have falsely reported that we may be recruiting full time journalists from the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, for example, does not make it so. One might think the "Center for Media and Democracy" would have reached out to me for some sort of comment. Maybe that demands too much from this "Media" and is too "Democratic."

The first line of our employment agreement reads as follows:
"you must review every employment, consulting and other agreement to which you are a party, and all employee manuals and other codes and policies by which you are bound to ensure that you are able to fully participate. . .you represent to Abrams Research that your execution and delivery of this agreement. . . does not and will not breach or conflict with any other agreement, arrangement, understanding or employment or other relationship to which you are or become a party."

As a result, no full time employee bound by a manual that prohibits outside work as they have at the Journal, the New York Times and NBC will be part of our network. Period.

Freelancers or part timers, on the other hand will have to be evaluated on a case by case basis. If any conflict exists they will not be part of that project. Period.

With media organizations severely cutting back on full time staffers we have a huge pool of smart, talented, experienced reporters, execs, and others available to us.

Furthermore if you had called for comment or even perused the web site at www.abramsresearch.com you would have seen that much of our business is not related to pure "media strategy."

This is how you "promote" "media literacy?"

I would expect a prompt correction.

Sincerely,

Dan Abrams
CEO
Abrams Research

From your website:

A Fortune 500 business believes the financial media has focused unfairly on a small change in accounting practices rather than significant increases in revenues.

* Abrams Research can bring together top financial journalists to advise that business on how to best convey its message.

I understand this is a hypothetical case, but I'm curious -- could this small change in accounting practices have affected the amount of revenues reported?

Your own website describes your services [http://www.abramsresearch.com/services.htm as follows]:

"Abrams Research can bring together top financial journalists to advise that business on how to best convey its message."

"Furthermore, our network includes some of the top investigative journalists who can help research and/or prepare reports for prospective acquisitions or mergers."

In short, it is you, not us, who is blurring the distinction between "former" and "current" journalists.

Contrary to what you wrote in your comment here, we never wrote that Abrams research "may be recruiting full time journalists from the Wall Street Journal or New York Times." We never mentioned the Wall Street Journal or New York Times specifically as possible sources of journalist that you might be able to recruit. I think journalists who work at either of those two institutions would understand quickly that working for your company would destroy their reputation as journalists. However, your own website makes it perfectly clear that you do intend to pay journalists to work on behalf of your clients.

As for whether you will still be a "journalist" if you continue working as a chief legal analyst for NBC, you're parsing words. Whatever term of art you choose to describe yourself, the audience that sees you offering your opinions on TV will continue to mistakenly regard you as a journalist. For that reason, I think NBC should reconsider its willingness to employ you in that capacity.

The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states:

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.

Journalists should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
  • Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
  • Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
  • Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

I don't see how journalists who join your company's network can possibly come close to meeting these obligations. Your business model is an ethical train wreck waiting to happen.

I am astounded at this unprofessional response. You quote from, and link to, an article that quotes an editor from the Wall Street Journal who was asked whether he would allow his reporters to work as consultants for me. In the same article they asked the same question of a New York Times editor and now you have the temerity to say "We never mentioned the Wall Street Journal or New York Times specifically as possible sources of journalist that you might be able to recruit." Really? Did you actually just say that? Talk about a lack of credibility.

Yes we will pay certain journalists to serve as consultants. But only IF they are allowed to do so (see above) AND can adhere to the ethical guidelines. Are you actually saying there is no grey area? What about a producer who is hired once a month to work for the local Fox affiliate in Houston to shoot feature pieces? Am I precluded from hiring that person to advise on corporate videos? Or to discuss the Houston media market? Really? That person has to give up his or her livelihood in this era of major media cutbacks? Shame on you.

As for my role, knowing how committed you must be to intellectual consistency I assume you are now going to denounce all networks for having outside consultants on the payroll, right?

I appreciate and share your concern for journalistic ethics but part of that is getting the facts right. I am finished fact-checking your piece and won't respond again. I assume you will act in accordance with the principles which you claim to embrace and that a correction will be forthcoming.

Dan Abrams

I think the only reason you're "astounded" by my response is that you think angry bluster can cover over the unethical nature of what you're proposing to do. I'll address some of your points specifically:

First: You claim to be amazed that we "quote from, and link to, an article that quotes an editor from the Wall Street Journal who was asked whether he would allow his reporters to work as consultants for me." We quoted that editor accurately, when he said that what you're doing wouldn't meet his paper's ethical standards. The New York Times replied similarly. I think that their comments provide an illuminating look at what top journalistic institutions think of the ethics of what you're trying to do. It doesn't mean that we think or claimed that reporters from those organizations were going to work for you. Indeed, the editor at the Wall Street Journal stated clearly that his journalists would not be working for you. Your complaint, as originally stated, was as follows:

Just because others have falsely reported that we may be recruiting full time journalists from the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, for example, does not make it so.

As I've just explained now for the second time here, the [http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2008/11/which_news_organizations_would.html NY Magazine piece] that we quoted and linked to did not "falsely report" that you would be recruiting journalists from the WSJ and NYT. To the contrary, it reported clearly and accurately the exact opposite: namely, that no way in hell would journalists from those institutions be able to even consider working for you. We've been over these facts a couple of times now, and it's quite clear that your complaint on this point was simply false. It's absurd for you to pretend that you have been "fact-checking" our piece. To the contrary, you've been injecting a falsehood and hoping nobody notices the difference.

Second: You now claim that your business will find some ethical way to operate in a "gray area" that involves things like hiring a part-time producer for Fox News to do projects for you. It happens that I do think this sort of gray area is ethically problematic. We have reported in the past, for example, on problems with the reporting by [[Paul Moran]], a stringer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) who moonlit for the [[Rendon Group]], a PR form that works for the Pentagon. Through his contacts at Rendon, Moran got introduced to the [[Iraqi National Congress]], which provided him with a source (now proven to be a fabricator) who became the basis for a major story that Moran did for ABC, claiming that Iraq had secret weapons of mass destruction. Moran used this source in reports for ABC, and it also got picked up by the New York Times (something the Times now greatly regrets). If Moran had not been working for two masters, he would have better served journalism and the public interest. I don't think he was an evil person, but he crossed an ethical line when he let his work for a PR firm affect his journalism. That's the sort of ethical train wreck you're lining up to happen at your company. Mark my words.

Third: Your website claims, as as I stated previously, that you will be lining up "top financial journalists" and "top investigative journalists" to work for your clients. I think most people would agree that there is a big difference between a "top journalist" and a part-time producer for a local Fox affiliate. Your defense against my claim that your business model is unethical now seems to be that you are not inducing journalists to misbehave, you are merely overhyping your product to clients. Instead of claiming that you are offering "top journalists," perhaps you should rewrite your website to state that you will be offering "desperate, underemployed hangers-on from the bottom rungs of journalism." If you make that correction on your website, I will give appropriate consideration to your request here for a correction from me.

Finally: You wrote, "That person has to give up his or her livelihood in this era of major media cutbacks? Shame on you." I never wrote anything about anyone having to give up their livelihood. You may indeed find some success in finding people who are so desperate in this economy that they will swallow their principles and work for you. I doubt that they'll make any decisions about "giving up their livelihood" because of anything I write here. Sure, they may well decide that feeding their family is more important than their journalistic principles. However, as a strict point of fact, they do have other options besides going to work for you. For example, they could try prostitution or holding up liquor stores. I wouldn't advise those options for them either, because in addition to being ethically problematic, they are risky. For the same reason, I would hope that journalists who hope to survive this recession with their reputations intact have enough sense to avoid going to work for you. It might be money in the short run, but if they hope to stay in journalism, it's not going to be good for their careers.

"But only IF they are allowed to do so (see above) AND can adhere to the ethical guidelines."

A journalist for corporate hire is already violating ethical guidelines. I recommend a copy of The Elements of Journalism, as it not only addresses the sort of corrupting influence this sort of blurring of purposes and money has, but concisely explains what it is a journalist is supposed to do.

Frankly, I find it troubling that a former higher up at one of the major news networks doesn't appear to grasp the problem with turning journalists into corporate shills.

...if you believe in the old saws like comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, or news being what powerful people want to suppress and all the rest being advertising:

"Furthermore, our network includes some of the top investigative journalists who can help research and/or prepare reports for prospective acquisitions or mergers."

Wait a second, isn't he the guy Rachel Maddow is filling in for?

http://greatscat.com/2008/11/rachel-maddow-show_6531.html