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Aug. 5 2009 - 2:40 pm | 62 views | 1 recommendation | 0 comments

Richard Wolffe: How Many Conflicts of Interest Can One Man Have?

I doubt that there is a way to prove this empirically, but I am pretty sure that more harm is done in the world not by bad people doing bad things, but by smart people convincing themselves that there are good reasons to for doing whatever they think is a good idea. Everybody knows that in journalism you can’t play for both teams–either you cover people and subjects objectively, or you go play on the other team. And most journalists have confronted that issue, and not every journalist has remained pure as the driven snow. But still–the form should be observed.

Now comes a talented fellow called Richard Wolffe, a longtime Newsweek reporter and MSNBC contributor. Wolffe caught my attention some time back because he has two silent letters in a six letter last name, which is pretty noteworthy. He also turned out to be a pretty good reporter. He recently published a book about the Obama campaign called Renegade, which despite its title–Obama hardly comes across as a renegade, but more of a risk-taker–is pretty good.
A few months ago, Wolffe, like many a journalist before him, gave up his job as a reporter and left Newsweek. As reported by Glenn Greenwald on Salon, Wolffe became a senior strategist at Public Strategies, Inc., the corporate communications firm run by former Bush White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, where, according to press release he will help “forward-thinking organizations assess public opinion and risk, and develop strategies for managing corporate reputation and uncertainty. Much of its practice involves managing high-stakes campaigns for corporate clients, anticipating and responding to crises.” Under all those words, what Public Strategies does is high-level public relations.

Fine. Mazel tov. Good luck, Richard.

But PR Richard seems to miss Journalist Richard. The other week, Wolffe filled in on Countdown for His Righteous Majesty Keith Olbermann, who was on vacation. Wolffe identified himself as an MSNBC Political analyst, and never once disclosed the fact that he now pockets a fat paycheck for helping clients maintain a clean appearance, regardless of what nefarious deeds they’ve committed.

That’s pretty bad, but today The New Republic’s Gabriel Sherman is reporting that Wolffe–Journalist Richard–is circulating a book proposal that would take advantage of his high level contacts in the Obama Administration to write a behind-the-scenes account of 30 days at the epicenter of the pinnacle of the inner sanctum of the blah blah blah.

Now, how many conflicts of interest can one man have? Can we trust his MSNBC analysis of the Obama administration if he’s trying to parlay those contacts into a fat book deal? Can we trust his descriptions of the administration’s actions when we know corporate clients are paying him because he has at least good relationships them? Will his corporate PR strategies include approaching his buddies at MSNBC? Will Richard become a two-headed backscratcher, helping his clients when they need something from the administration, and helping his administration pals when they need something from the corporate fat cats? Wolffe’s agent, Kristine Dahl, told Sherman “that criticism of her client is unfair and fueled by professional jealousy. `He’s not a corporate lobbyist. He’s a very talented journalist. … Everything is entirely separate.”’

Here’s a question: who would want a guy this blind to the appearance of conflict of interests to be either a political analyst or a high level PR advisor?


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