Bozell Column: Katie's Charities: A Conflict?

With an
eye on building audience anticipation, and maybe a little political
gravitas, CBS sent its anchor-in-waiting Katie Couric on a six-city
promotional tour complete with town meetings. AP reporter David Bauder
compared her “listening tour” to Hillary Clinton’s, and like the former
First Lady’s sojourns, these were frantically pre-screened to be safe
and boring. (A blogger in Minneapolis had his pen confiscated.)

Couric told gossip writer
James Brady in Aspen she was going out to see “real people,” but Couric
has been doing something else at tour stops. She’s been raising money
for local cancer charities at $150 a plate. Since her husband Jay
Monahan and her sister Emily Couric died of cancer, Couric has been a
very active fundraiser for anti-cancer causes. Working with a charity
called the Entertainment Industries Foundation (EIF), she is a
co-founder of the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance (NCCRA).
They have built a Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New
York’s Presbyterian Hospital.

In her sister’s memory, she
has pledged to serve as honorary chairwoman of a campaign to raise $100
million for a new cancer center at the University of Virginia, her alma
mater. In May, Couric gave a short commencement address at the
University of Oklahoma for an eye-popping fee of $115,000 paid by
private donors. The six-figure sum was sent directly to the UVA
charity. Will she do more six-figure speeches for charity cash?

Couric has established an
admirable record of public activism in the fight against cancer and is
to be commended for her efforts. But this also being the first time
we’ve had one of the nation’s leading news anchors have an aggressive
high-profile side career in philanthropy (we’re not counting Dan
Rather’s one-night stand helping raise $20,000 for the Democratic Party
of Travis County, Texas in 2001). Couric's activity triggers the
uncomfortable but necessary question: Is there a political conflict of
interest at play here?

Reporters have been skeptical
of politicians like Tom DeLay having charities (his DeLay Foundation
for Kids supports abused and neglected children), viewing them as
potential influence-peddling opportunities for lobbyists. Should Katie
Couric’s network of charitable connections be viewed any differently?

What is to say that – as was
suggested with Tom Delay – the celebrities and politicians and
corporate chieftains who assist in her charity work won’t have a
special influence, in Couric’s case, on how she reports the news, the
stories she pushes -- and perhaps more importantly, the stories she
decides not to push at CBS?

What if her cancer charities
are lobbying in Washington? Couric’s NCCRA insists that private
insurance companies should be mandated by the government to cover
colorectal cancer screening, for example. The Entertainment Industries
Foundation also has five other health-related charities sitting side by
side with Couric’s project. Will Couric get a nudge and a wink to plug
their causes at opportune moments? A quick Nexis search of NBC shows
over 60 morning-show segments in the last six years mentioning either
EIF or NCCRA.

In fact, there is a political
component to Katie Couric’s philanthropy. She has raised funds for
highly-controversial embryo-destroying stem cell research. For several
years now, Couric has attended New York fundraisers for the Michael J.
Fox Foundation. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, has been a
very prominent advocate of scrambling embryos for research, including a spot with Couric
on NBC’s “Today” just a few days before the 2004 election. Couric
interviewed Fox as he proclaimed that President Bush had no stem-cell
research policy, and that people should vote for the “forward-looking”
John Kerry. Couric interviewed no one with an opposing view, nor did
she make any mention of her fundraising efforts on behalf of Fox’s
charity.

The same lack of disclosure
came in a chummy interview Couric gave to Fox on “Dateline” on April
16, just weeks before she left NBC. She celebrated how “we watched him
evolve from a Hollywood star to a selfless crusader of scientific
research” and proclaimed that he when he lobbies (against pro-lifers)
on Capitol Hill, “Michael is the big shot, or as you might say, king of
the hill.” She even went into detail about some of the research the Fox
Foundation was supporting, but never explained her direct
participation.

Perhaps the media elite will
insist on a double standard. Politicians (especially conservative ones)
need special scrutiny of their charities, they will lecture us.
Journalists, on the other hand, are to be seen as society’s helpers
during their day jobs, so why discourage Katie Couric from a little
moonlighting at saving lives, too? Media ethicists ought to be pressed
to think hard about this new situation and state their opinion. CBS
ought to explain its policy about disclosing any Couric conflicts
before the new anchor’s era begins.

Brent Bozell
Brent Bozell
Brent Bozell is the Founder and President of the Media Research Center