“Hard to believe you would have gotten all those invitations if you didn’t pull a few punches,” says Meryl Streep in the Oscar-nominated film The Post, as former newspaper CEO Katharine Graham. She’s needling infamous Post Editor Bill Bradlee, portrayed by Tom Hanks, for his questionable relationship with JFK. Today, the Washington Post is “pledged to avoid conflict of interest […] wherever and whenever possible.”
There is a reason why conflicts of interest are scrupulously examined, and often condemned, by the best news organizations in the world: because they are dangerous. They are a threat to the very point of journalism— to connect people with information— because they tolerate the possibility of providing that information in a biased way. While the President of the United States, too preoccupied justifying his own conflicts of interest, wages war on “fake news”, his closest adviser is doing irreversible damage to our democracy. Sean Hannity, a Fox News host watched by aspiring journalists across the country, has broken every ethical standard by cozying up to the most powerful source in America: Donald Trump.
Despite Hannity’s claims that he is an “opinion journalist,” his network’s title literally contains the word news. The long-time conservative pundit’s unmistakably biased reporting, in which he can do nothing but defend Trump, is communicating that the road to unchecked power is littered with conflicts of interest, waiting to be manipulated for personal gain. In fact, Hannity is living proof of that reality, and how such willful blindness filters down to the youngest of age groups— myself included.
I am a student journalist. From sitting down with the mayor of my small Montana town to covering President Trump’s recent trip to it, I have discovered a passion for truth-telling like none I have ever experienced. Attending a high school without a journalism class, however, has forced me to grapple with my own naïveté and conflicts of interest I never realized existed.
When I was approached for a fellowship position within the Montana Democratic Party’s 2018 Coordinated Campaign, I was overjoyed. I accepted the offer, and in the shadow of the midterm elections, local organizers were not eager to turn down a young volunteer. When my reporting began to unwittingly slant left, however, my superiors noticed.
“You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?” asked my boss at the local radio station, after I had just conducted an interview with yet another liberal politician.
“This could use some balance,” said my newspaper editor, upon reading an article I wrote about the midterm elections, in which I had only cited Democratic Party officials.
The potential for a conflict of interest was completely lost on me, because the normalization of partisanship in American journalism has pervaded the airwaves ever since I was old enough to reach for the TV remote. Yes, I know that Megyn Kelly is a Republican in the same way I am certain that Don Lemon is a Democrat — so what? Even survivors of the Parkland shooting — stark advocates for gun control — are student journalists like myself. If they can stand up for their beliefs, why can’t I?
Eric Garner, the television instructor at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, would say that conflicts of interest have no age limit.
“Their passion has run into their journalism […] but they’re going to have to divorce themselves from that,” Garner said in an interview with CBS News in March.
Did I anticipate that my role as a student journalist would interfere with my political involvement? Not at first. I wanted to see my reporting from every angle, and like Hannity, was blind to the cost: slanted storytelling. I consoled myself, knowing all I ever wanted was to make connections with the candidates I hoped to interview, and let synergy works its magic.
I have spent my entire high school career operating on the principal of synergy. It has helped me contact numerous high-level sources, and taught me, through my community involvement, that having my foot in the door with several different organizations plays an instrumental role in accomplishing great things. I now recognize these as the networking instincts that every journalist inevitably develops. But there is a career-ending difference between working with other journalists and working for your own sources.
So, as I watch the toxicity of synergy in journalism being played out on Fox News— weekday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern Time— I accept my ethical responsibility to decry my own conflicts of interest, and caution future journalists, like those in Parkland, to do the same. Eventually it became clear that I had to decide which side of the story I wanted to spend the rest of my life on.
I chose to cut ties with the local political establishment. I chose to always tell the truth — and never pull any punches.