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Monday, March 14, 2011
Newsmax's Florida Donations Get Attention
Topic: Newsmax

Our research on Newsmax's undisclosed contributions to the campaigns of Florida politicians who are also getting fawning coverage on Newsmax -- published here and at Media Matters -- is getting some attention.

Business Insider noted the story and called Newsmax's Christopher Ruddy (who took part in fundraisers for two of the candidates named in the article) for a response:

When contacted by The Wire, Ruddy responded:
"Newsmax rarely endorses candidates in primary and general elections. However, we strongly endorsed Bill McCollum during his primary for Governor.
Our regular readers were well aware of our editorial perspective on the race.
Like most major media companies, Newsmax allows its executives to make donations to political candidates and like most major media companies, such donations are not noted in its contents."

Of course, most major media companies' executives are not so closely linked to their editorial content as Ruddy is with Newsmax's.

Further, the issue is not just Ruddy's personal contributions but those of Newsmax Media, which most notably gave $100,000 to Rick Scott's 527 organization at the same time Newsmax was announcing its endorsement of him. It begs the question of whether there is a quid pro quo taking place. Newsmax may have a certain "editorial perspective," but how much of it, if any, was a function of its and Ruddy's donations to their favorite candidates? Was Newsmax's fawning coverage an explicit or implied side benefit to the candidate getting the cash? There's also the implication of another quid pro quo: is Newsmax getting, or is hoping to get, something in return for these donations?

Ruddy's explanation that Newsmax's "regular readers" already know about its right-wing slant and, besides, he's not required to disclose his political donations is mostly meaningless. Newsmax presents itself as a news organization, which brings some expectation of the existence of standards.

The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics states that journalists should "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived" and "Disclose unavoidable conflicts." Does Newsmax have an ethics code that it follows?

Sheryl Young at Yahoo News, meanwhile, highlighted this story as well. She wrote, "It is not identified whether Ruddy spent Newsmax income or his own personal income." The presumption can be made that if Ruddy made the contributions under his own name, he used his own money, and that donations under the Newsmax Media name used corproate money.

Young goes on to ask if there is a "so what" to all of this, noting that it's not illegal for Ruddy and Newsmax not to disclose their political donations on their website, that the policies on politial donations by employees at other media companies vary widely, and that a majority of those tend to favor Democrats (though she concedes that a significant number of those involve journalists who don't cover politics). 

We don't dispute the legality of not disclosing these donations, but we do believe the ethics of not doing so should certainly be discussed. Newsmax's main focus is its political coverage, and Ruddy made his early reputation as a (rabidly anti-Clinton) political reporter. And there is the appearance of a quid pro quo regarding donations and coverage.

Ultimately, the heart of the matters is that Newsmax needs to decide what kind of operation it wants to be. If Ruddy doesn't think his readers should expect anything more from Newsmax than mindless shilling for Republican candidates, it should stop pretending to be a "real" news site by surrounding said shilling with wire stories from actual reporters. If Newsmax wants to be taken seriously as a news operation, it should be more transparent to its readers about its behind-the-scenes fundraising and donations -- or perhaps not make them in the first place and let its words speak for themselves.

Posted by Terry K. at 12:58 AM EDT

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