Thursday May 23rd, 2024 1:27AM

Outside roles by NBC's Conde, others reveal a journalism ethics issue: being paid to sit on boards

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — As NBC News Group chairman, Cesar Conde is already busy overseeing the network's broadcast and digital news operations, along with CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo and NBC-owned local affiliates.

Yet the executive also has a second paid job. And a third — as a member of Walmart and PepsiCo's corporate boards. The arrangement has raised some ethical concerns, and reveals a potential blind spot for a news business usually very serious about conflicts — real or perceived.

CNN's new chief executive, Mark Thompson, chairs Ancestry.com's board. And although Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, is not a journalist, the newspaper reminds readers who he is when writing about Amazon. Former President Donald Trump has eagerly pointed out Bezos' dual roles.

A former NBC News executive, Bill Wheatley, recently questioned the propriety of Conde's outside corporate roles at a time when the news division's leadership is already under fire for the hiring and quick dismissal — following a staff revolt — of former Republican National Committee head Ronna McDaniel as a contributor.

“It seemed to me that this was an additional instance of NBC management not understanding the rules by which news leaders are supposed to play,” said Wheatley, who retired in 2005 as NBC News' executive vice president and has done work as a news consultant since.

Conde was on the Walmart and PepsiCo boards before he took over as NBC News Group chairman in 2020. The NBC News chief earned $275,018 from Walmart in 2022 and $320,000 from PepsiCo, in a combination of cash and stock, according to Salary.com.

NBC wouldn't comment to The Associated Press on the matter.

NO EVIDENCE OF ANY EFFECT ON THE NEWS

There's no evidence that Conde has been involved with any NBC stories involving the two corporations. NBC pointed to a 2021 Wall Street Journal article where the network said he would recuse himself from any reporting on the companies.

Generally, journalists work hard to avoid any situation where a conflict could be alleged, even if the conflict itself does not come to pass: Did reporters, for example, write positive stories on a corporation that a boss is involved with, or ignore bad news because it might anger a superior? Perception can be as important as an actual conflict; some journalists go so far as to not even vote in an election that their outlet is covering.

This holds true within NBC as well. Among other rules: The business network CNBC that Conde oversees forbids its journalists — and their spouses — from owning stock for these reasons.

Recusal is a good step, Wheatley says, but it doesn't cure the conflict.

“In an ideal world, I think news executives should avoid situations like this,” said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. If the situation can't be avoided, it's important to disclose it and make clear the companies will face reporting that takes place “without fear or favor,” she said.

Kelly McBride, senior vice president and ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, the pre-eminent journalism think tank, agrees that the situation isn't ideal. At the same time, she says, “we don't want executives or anybody in journalism to be a blank slate.”

Leaders in journalism have traditionally worked their way up the ranks but that's not always the route anymore. Conde succeeded in corporate, not news, roles at Univision and Telemundo before getting his current job. CNN's Thompson was a top executive at the BBC and The New York Times. At the latter, his biggest achievement was more in business than journalism, shepherding a successful digital transformation.

CNN would not discuss whether Thompson is paid for his Ancestry.com job. Representatives for the company, a private one not obligated to disclose salaries, did not respond to a message. The Glassdoor jobs website estimated directors at Ancestry are paid in a similar six-figure range as the Walmart and PepsiCo jobs.

Thompson has recused himself from any news involving Ancestry or other genealogical companies, network spokeswoman Emily Kuhn said.

ABC this spring appointed Debra O'Connell, a longtime executive at the network and its corporate owner, the Walt Disney Co., to a position that oversees ABC News. O'Connell's background is in sales and marketing. She has unpaid positions on boards involving National Geographic and the A&E Networks, both companies affiliated with Disney.

HOW DO JOURNALISTS APPROACH THIS SITUATION?

It's hard to make assumptions about how journalists will deal with knowing the boss has interest in a particular company.

It's human nature to want to avoid problems, although McBride notes that some contrarian journalists who want to prove their independence would dive right in. For example, The Washington Post in 2021 analyzed government data for a story on the dangers faced by Amazon warehouse workers.

Because NBC wouldn't address questions about Conde, it's not clear whether anyone at NBC Universal signed off on him continuing with his paid board positions.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are two news companies with conduct codes that specifically talk about such roles. The Times says staff members “may not join boards of trustees, advisory committees or similar groups except those serving journalistic organizations or otherwise promoting journalism education.” The Journal says its employees “may not serve as directors, officers, advisors, investors, consultants or partners of any company or venture devoted to profit-making.”

Other situations are murkier. ABC, CBS and Fox News said its news leaders don't serve on paid outside corporate boards, but couldn't or wouldn't point to policies that forbid the practice.

The AP employee handbook says that “we avoid addressing, or accepting fees or expense from, governmental bodies; trade, lobbying or special interest groups; businesses or labor groups; or any group that would pose a conflict of interest.” Neither AP President Daisy Veerasingham nor Julie Pace, AP's executive editor and senior vice president, sits on any outside boards, a spokeswoman said.

It would make sense for news organizations to make clear policies about service on outside boards, and outline procedures if it is allowed, Poynter's McBride said. “I don't think it was much of an issue in the past,” she said. “The nature of news companies has gotten much more complicated that it's likely to become an issue in the future.”

News organizations are also left to decide for themselves how to alert readers or viewers of potential conflicts. The Post generally makes clear its owner's ties to Amazon when writing about the company; a September 2023 story about workplace safety included this disclaimer: “Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post."

The Post knows it is being watched. Trump has called the newspaper the “Amazon Washington Post” on social media and wrote on Twitter in 2018 that “The Washington Post is nothing more than an expensive ... lobbyist for Amazon.”

On NBC"s “Nightly News” last July, reporter Jacob Burns reported a story about how Walmart was using artificial intelligence to help stock its shelves and change the jobs of some of its employees. Burns quoted a company spokesman saying that AI wouldn't result in job losses, and a business school professor who expressed some skepticism about that.

While Conde's NBC corporate profile mentions his association with Walmart, it was not included as part of Burns' story or in a handful of digital pieces that have run about the company.

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David Bauder writes about media for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/dbauder.

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