Post Ombudsman: 'Close Call'

Washington Post’s Eilperin Draws Barbs Based on Spouse’s Climate Policy Role

Barbs from the left and right are nothing new, in fact are par for the course, for any environmental reporter in a position as visible as Juliet Eilperin’s.

A five-years-plus veteran of covering the beat for The Washington Post, Eilperin has often been the foil of those on all sides of virtually every issue she has taken on. Now that she, like many other beat reporters, is focusing more on more on the climate change issue, the criticisms come more often and more pointedly.

What makes the latest one a bit different is that it has prompted a column by the Post‘s own ombudsman, Andrew Alexander. He concluded in a November 1 column that an alleged conflict of interest stemming from her husband’s job in the climate policy field makes for “a close call” on whether she should stay on the beat. His column provoked numerous comments from readers: Some expressed support for Eilperin, but others expressed concerns about what they saw as a real or apparent conflict of interest. A number of the latter also expressed their distrust of the Post generally.

Spouses’ marriages to folks in a related field are nothing new in the world of Washington, D.C., policy, politics, … and journalism. There are countless potential “entangling alliances” under all those rocks that have yet been acknowledged or reported. In this case, inevitably also raising some important women’s rights issues concerning a spouse’s employment, conservative climate contrarians appear to smell blood.

Eilperin has been married since June 2008 to a person who works as director of George Mason University’s Center for Global Ethics. Also a part-time senior fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress, where he works on international climate change issues, he had been on the faculty of the University of Washington in Seattle before moving east after their marriage.

Avoiding Appearance of a Bias?

“Can Eilperin remain neutral? Can she avoid even the appearance of bias?” the Post‘s Alexander asked in his November 1 column. Amidst trashing from conservative blogs and those clearly disdainful of climate change as a legitimate scientific and public policy issue, Alexander suggested that “With her work now getting special scrutiny, it will become clear if the conflict is real.” He didn’t elaborate on just how that might take place.

In a telephone interview with The Yale Forum, Eilperin acknowledged she is no stranger to criticism from all sides of the climate change issue. Her editors have known of her husband’s professional activities on climate change long before it recently was publicized, she said. Eilperin said she has no plans to leave the environment and climate change beat and said she knows of no moves under way at the Post to change her beat.

“I understand why people are raising the question, and I’m all in favor of transparency,” Eilperin said when asked if she sees any merit in charges of a conflict of interest. “Absolutely yes, people do have a right to question it.”

She said she has found nothing in official government conflict of interest policies questioning such a relationship.

Those federal policies are seen by some to be among the most stringent, and while they do not apply specifically to the media, they provide for some a general guide post for ethical conduct. Finding direct journalism corollaries is difficult, at best.

“I find particularly annoying that people would suggest that I would write articles to please my spouse,” Eilperin said, insisting she sees no conflict of interest. She said she adheres to conflict of interest policies common for reporters at most major news organizations – avoiding political donations and rallies, not accepting money or valuables from interests, and avoiding memberships in interest groups.

Eilperin said she has quoted some staffers of the Center for American Progress, which is headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and is home to climate blogger Joseph Romm, but has not quoted her husband, Andrew Light.

Conservative Bloggers: ‘A Joke’? Yes … and No

In an exchange on the conservative American Spectator blog, a “special correspondent” for the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which opposes actions to regulate carbon dioxide and rejects IPCC climate science, labeled Eilperin “yet another template-follower from the Society of Environmental Journalists.” With a “Juliet Eilperin is a Joke” headline, Paul Chesser lambasted both Eilperin and the Post generally.

His rant prompted a “Juliet Eilperin is No Joke” headline and response the next day from a Washington Times senior editorial writer and American Spectator senior editor. In that column, Quin Hillyer, saying he has known Eilperin for 15 years, called her “a very hard-working journalist who tries very hard to be fair.”

At the same time, Hillyer wrote that “Juliet clearly leans left,” and, given what he sees as “an obvious APPARENT conflict of interest,” he suggested the Post move her to another beat “with a promotion.”

Hillyer, in what some might consider his “defense” of Eilperin, said his own reading of her coverage “found that the underlying assumptions were those of the left.” Hillyer emphasized that he personally thinks “this whole idea of a crisis of man-made global warming is an absolute, irredeemable farce.” He acknowledged that in dealing with Eilperin while she was working for Roll Call and he was on the staff of a leading Louisiana Republican House member’s staff, “she was always willing to listen …. I never once had a problem with her copy. Her reports were thorough and balanced,” Hillyer wrote, referring to Eilperin’s reporting while she was covering Congress.

Views of Journalism Ethicists … ‘Dicey Territory’?

Asked his assessment of the Eilperin issue, Ed Lambeth, professor emeritus of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said the situation “presents a very difficult kind of question” involving reporter/spouse issues. Journalism ethicists in their teachings often emphasize “what not to do, and why” to avoid conflicts of interest, he said.

Lambeth, author of Committed Journalism: An Ethic for the Profession, said that if the Post were to ask his advice, he would suggest it transparently undertake “the kind of internal review” that USA Today and The New York Times undertook in recent years concerning questions surrounding controversial coverage by some of their reporters.

Washington and Lee University Knight Professor of Journalism Edward Wasserman said in a phone interview that it is important for journalists to “avoid entanglements, potential sources of obligation, all of which could possibly impair their news judgment, how they frame a story, what information they include, what information they omit.”

“Off-stage invisible constituencies” are the concern, Wasserman said.

“From that standpoint,” he said, the Eilperin situation is “problematic.” But he cautioned against a newspaper’s acting too quickly to transfer an experienced and knowledgeable reporter from a complex beat: “Are you really serving your readers by reassigning her?” he wondered.

Wasserman said there may be some climate stories, and all stories involving the Center for American Progress, that might better be assigned to a different Post reporter. “I would swallow hard before I would have her on certain stories,” he said. “But you don’t take your most qualified person off the beat” without good reason.  Barbs and attacks from those politically or ideologically motivated would not be good reason, he emphasized.

The question is “whether it is plausible to think this situation could impair the news judgment. I think it is.”

For journalism ethicist Bob Steele, often considered among the most demanding and cautious on journalism ethics matters, the issue might come down to “competing loyalties” Eilperin and the Post have concerning their journalism obligations to the public and those her spouse has to the Center for American Progress and its constituents.

Steele, now the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University in Greencastle, In., emphasized that the Post and Eilperin – in addition to adhering to all the other qualities of outstanding independent journalism – “can’t let a competing loyalty undermine her journalistic independence.”

Steele, also the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values with The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fl., said many reporters face such “competing loyalties,” either by ideology, family connections, or other factors. “Those per se need not necessarily pose a conflict of interest.” The key, Steele said, is that the news organization and the reporter manage those loyalties to prevent their posing a conflict.

“In a case like this, can they keep what they’re doing independent from the organization [the Center for American Progress]?” Steele asked. “It’s dicey territory if she’s covering that center” and dicey too in covering an issue central to that group’s mission.

“It at least raises a pressure point,” Steele said, involving what, who, and how she reports on the Center and on climate change and also involving “the tone” of her reporting.

“Perception is always a problem,” Steele said, and dealing with it in this case will involve “extra vigorous oversight” on the part of Eilperin and her editors.

According to Steele, Eilperin and her spouse need to be guarded even in their private discussions of climate change at home, and he said “transparency alone does not amount to accountability.”

But with ongoing care and diligence by Eilperin and her editors, the matter could amount to just a “low-level conflict of interest,” Steele said, notwithstanding the “close call” that the Post ombudsman acknowledged.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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