In a study conducted recently by The Nation, many of the talking heads on cable news were found to also be working as paid lobbyists, often with stakes in the issues they're invited on-air to discuss. Author Sebastian Jones says the problem is much more widespread than we may have suspected.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This past December, journalist Sebastian Jones was watching MSNBC when he saw a familiar face, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. Ridge was on the TV show Hardball, arguing that President Obama’s economic plan ought to include more money for nuclear power.
TOM RIDGE: I'd like to see the President take his green agenda and blow it out of the box. Let's build nuclear facilities, let’s do –
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CHRIS MATTHEWS: Investment tax credit?
TOM RIDGE: Yeah, well, investment tax credit would do it, but why not set up an infrastructure bank? Let's create nuclear power plants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What viewers weren't told was that Ridge had been paid more than half a million dollars in executive pay and another quarter mil in stock options by a nuclear power company called Exelon. MSNBC identified him as just a former governor. Sebastian Jones wondered whether this was an isolated incident or if lobbyists often posed as unpaid experts on cable news shows. He conducted a four-month study that was recently published in The Nation. Welcome to On the Media.
SEBASTIAN JONES: Hi Brooke, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I'm guessing this wasn't an isolated incident.
SEBASTIAN JONES: That would be correct. We started in 2007, a sort of an arbitrary date, keeping tabs on when we would see people who were not being properly identified, who were working for companies in their day job but then were going on MSNBC, FOX News, CNN and discussing policies that related to the companies, sometimes even the companies, frankly. When we were all done, we got to 75.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Seventy-five regular unidentified spokespeople presented as disinterested experts?
SEBASTIAN JONES: Right, exactly. And one thing that I found - and this is something that Terry Holt, this one Republican strategist told me - was that, you know, he tells all the networks he goes on, he says, you know, here are my clients. And he sees this as being completely ethical. You know, you inform the network and then the network decides what information they use to identify you. And so, it’s basically this major systematic oversight that then results in these folks going on without any sort of disclosure there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Any pushback from cable viewers? Are they even aware of it?
SEBASTIAN JONES: I've been pleasantly surprised with the reaction that we've gotten from people who actually watch these networks, particularly because The Nation is a somewhat liberal publication. People -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Somewhat liberal publication?
SEBASTIAN JONES: [LAUGHS] Right. No, it’s a progressive publication, and we've had many people who've gotten in touch who have been shocked by some of the things that we reported. The day it went up two of the first people to link to the piece and write about it in a favorable manner, a writer for the libertarian-leaning Reason Magazine and a writer for The Washington Examiner, which is a conservative publication, and I think that really does sort of go to the point that this is not a problem that is isolated to one political party or to one particular network. It’s a problem that is systematic and that needs to be addressed in that kind of way, not simply let's get one guy off TV or let's fix this one conservative or liberal network. It’s something that all of these networks have to deal with in a manner that both viewers and those of us who monitor the press more closely can see that there’s actually some action being taken.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sebastian, thank you very much.
SEBASTIAN JONES: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sebastian Jones is a freelance writer based in New York.