On June 1, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review ran a column by associate editor Bill Steigerwald, an op-ed piece about a "watchdog" group's efforts to investigate Barack Obama's alleged ties to the far left. But Steigerwald's piece was at least as interesting for what it showed about the paper's ties to the far right -- and its unwillingness to disclose those ties openly.
Entitled "Calling Out Big Media," Steigerwald's piece detailed a press conference held by America's Survival Inc., which Steigerwald describes as "a conservative organization whose usual mission is doing battle with the United Nations." The group's president, Cliff Kincaid, insists he has no "political agenda," Steigerwald reported, but had "found lots of unconnected dots" supposedly joining Obama to a communist. Summarizing Kincaid's message, Steigerwald wrote that "it's up to Big Media to look into Obama's relationships" and find out "what lovely ideas he picked up from [leftists] and whether he has repudiated them."
Speaking of "unconnected dots," though, Steigerwald failed to note the connections between Kincaid and Steigerwald's boss.
Between 1999 and 2006, America's Survival received $375,000 from foundations controlled by the Trib's publisher, Richard Mellon Scaife. (Numbers for 2007 are not yet available.) Nor do Scaife's financial ties to Kincaid end there. Since 1985, Scaife-controlled foundations have given $4.4 million to the conservative media-watchdog group Accuracy in Media, where Kincaid has worked for years editing the AIM Report.
But Steigerwald's article didn't mention those ties. Neither did a follow-up he wrote the next week, a 1,900-word interview with Kincaid. ("The media seem reluctant to dig into [Obama's] background," Kincaid groused in the latter piece.)
Steigerwald did not return calls or e-mails for comment. Neither did editorial page editor Colin McNickle, nor editor Frank Craig. But Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism ethics and sociology at the Columbia School of Journalism, says Trib readers have every right to know Scaife's connection to these groups and causes.
"There's a straightforward obligation to report on who is standing behind this or any political group," says Gitlin. "Now compound that with the fact that this group is saying that people in politics are responsible for their associations. If that's the case, then the people who are funding you also matters.
"It's absolutely a no-brainer. It should have been the first thing they disclosed in any story."
This is far from the first time the Tribune-Review has relied on Kincaid's expertise. His claims about Obama's allegedly communist mentor, for example, were previously raised in a February 2008 editorial, which asserted that "the questions raised by Mr. Kincaid are serious enough to earn a more public vetting." Scaife's connection to Kincaid was not disclosed in that piece either.
In fact, judging from a search of the paper's online archives, the Trib's news and op-ed pages have cited Kincaid, America's Survival or Accuracy in Media dozens of times since 2002. Searching for each phrase individually yields a combined 63 hits, although some of the references do overlap. City Paper found only one case -- an obituary for AIM's founder -- in which the paper disclosed Scaife's ties to the group.
The Trib's failure to note such connections has been widely criticized in the past. It was one of a series of practices critiqued in a March 2001 story by the now-defunct Brill's Content magazine. "Not only has Scaife occasionally suited news coverage to his taste, he has done it in a way that leaves readers unaware of his tinkering," reported Kimberly Coniff.
"He pushes the paper to run stories that rely on quotes or reports from organizations he funds, yet the articles rarely disclose Scaife's connection," Coniff continued. "The result is a kind of 'information laundering,' as one former [Trib] reporter calls it. When a Scaife-inspired article that quotes a Scaife-funded foundation is published in the Tribune-Review, the story appears more reputable than it otherwise would."
It's no secret that Scaife -- who earlier this year wrote a warm op-ed piece about Obama's Democratic former rival, Hillary Clinton -- spreads his money to advance his beliefs. And Gitlin says he doesn't see much wrong with a publisher "using a newspaper as a political vehicle." The problem, he says, comes when a publisher uses "disguised and underhanded" tactics to advance his agenda.
"The fact that you have a strong political viewpoint is no exemption from being honest," Gitlin says. "In this case, there is duplicity involved when they've ostensibly passed off a group as independent when clearly they are not.
"And ethically, they have an obligation to disclose that."