On Wednesday, ABC News suspended correspondent David Wright after Project Veritas caught him on an undercover camera criticizing his network and expressing his own political views while covering the New Hampshire primary election.
Let’s point out that the video Project Veritas posted is edited, so we may not have all the context we might want about this conversation. But since ABC responded with a suspension, it is safe to assume the network is not questioning the basic facts the video presents.
And therein lies the lesson that journalists seem to need to learn over and over: Keep your political opinions to yourself.
I feel awful for a journalist like Wright, who has two decades of national and international award-winning experience bulk-erased by a hidden camera gotcha. The only good that comes from this is if we take a few moments to remind ourselves that as journalists, we are the faces of our newsrooms and the public judges our work and the work of our colleagues not only by what we report, but by what we say and do publicly.
This one sneak attack video undermines Wright’s reporting from the Middle East, the Congo and stories about upheaval within the Catholic Church. His bio says, “His reports from Baghdad and Fallujah shared a 2004 Emmy Award. His reporting from Afghanistan after 9/11 shared a George Foster Peabody Award. His stories on genocide in Darfur won a 2005 Emmy Award and an Overseas Press Club Award.”
In today’s scandal-addicted environment, one hidden camera video bulk erases all of that important work.
There is not a journalist among us who has not privately criticized some news decision or corporate mandate within our company. But when we take that complaint out of the confines of the newsroom — where it is appropriate to examine what we do and how we do it — and air our personal opinions in front of bystanders, we deserve the trouble that is heading our way.
Project Veritas has made a cottage industry of recording journalists in embarrassing private conversations, in an era where people already don’t trust journalists.
Wright says on the recording, “Oh yeah. More than that, I would consider myself a socialist; like I think there should be national health insurance. I’m totally fine with reining in corporations, I think there are too many billionaires, and I think there’s a wealth gap — that’s a problem.”
It sounds like a Bernie Sanders soundbite. How would you look at such a statement if you supported Joe Biden or Donald Trump?
But Wright also says some things on the video that a heck of a lot of journalists would agree with. You can hear him say on the recording, “We don’t have the bandwidth to give everybody a fair shot, and we should.” At the same time, he expresses frustration about how to hold the President accountable, saying journalists don’t give Trump credit “for the things he does do,” and it aggravates him that, he says, his New York-based colleagues do not understand Trump’s appeal to many voters.
I am sure I have said some version of those things myself. But he goes on to say, “With Trump, we (ABC) are interested in three things: the outrage of the day, the investigation and the palace intrigue of who is backstabbing whom. Beyond that, we don’t really cover the guy.”
It is a barroom chat soundbite that reflects the everyday frustration of journalists everywhere who want more airtime and more time to report. But Wright’s comments undermine his colleagues who slog through self-serving press briefings and battle limited-access photo-ops, still trying to “get it right.”
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics speaks to this case. The code includes advice that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” And “avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality.”
Another line of ethical thinking suggests that journalists should reveal their biases, a notion that would absolve Wright of his obligation to seem impartial, publicly or privately. The argument is that it is more unethical to hold those biases and not disclose them, as Wright did on the hidden camera video.
Univision anchor Jorge Ramos is a proponent of such revelations. In a 2018 interview, he explained:
“I’m just a journalist, asking questions. But I don’t think it is our job necessarily to be neutral all the time. I don’t think so. Am I supposed to be neutral in front of a dictator like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez or Daniel Ortega? Am I supposed to be neutral when the president of the United States makes racist remarks? When he says that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, or when he says that Judge Gonzalo Curiel cannot do his job, simply because of his Mexican heritage? Or when President Trump said that people from Haiti and African nations come from asshole countries — are we supposed to be neutral in front of that? I don’t think so. I think the basic examples that we have of great journalism in this country have happened when journalists take a stand, when they stopped being neutral. We can talk about Watergate, or Edward R. Murrow during the McCarthy era, or the Boston Globe in front of the Catholic Church and the cases of sexual abuse.”
My own view is that we all have to admit to ourselves that we do have biases. Our job is to report around those biases, to be fair in such a way that my audience would not perceive my biases through my reporting.
In the hidden camera comments, ABC’s Wright said a few things that may show he is concerned about fairness. He said he wants his news organization to listen to Trump supporters and try to understand where they are coming from. He said he wants more serious coverage of important issues beyond scandal and insider politics, and he said he is concerned about corporate influence over a program run by the news division.
We all understand why that would make a network sore at him. I hope the network, and all of us really, will also take a few moments away from tongue-clucking about saying that stuff to a stranger to contemplate whether he has a point or two worth considering.
Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.