The contretemps over a ghost-written op-ed in a sister newspaper has turned out to “have legs,” as we say in the business.
That is, the story has shown stamina and has been of continuing interest to many people, especially those of us concerned with ethics in the news business.
Since ethics in the news business ought to be of concern to everyone, due to the great influence wielded by the media and by those allowed to use media outlets, we wanted to address the issue here.
And if that isn’t enough to woo your interest, consider that the contretemps also involves a state-supported university, where your tax dollars are at work.
We’re talking about the op-ed that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch under the byline of Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao. It appeared in print early this year, but only recently did the newspaper discover who actually authored the piece.
The op-ed addressed a major redevelopment plan for a portion of Richmond, involving a new sports arena, a hotel and apartments — and possibly even a new medical building for VCU.
With that new medical building potentially at stake, it would not have been unexpected for Mr. Rao to have supported the developer’s proposal — and to have written the newspaper to say so.
But the president didn’t write the op-ed.
Instead, it was drafted by a PR consultant working for the developer.
The president’s office defended the piece by saying that it was based on an interview between Mr. Rao and the PR consultant, that it had been vetted by Mr. Rao’s staff, that it is “acceptable business practice” for communications professionals to work together in this manner, and that Mr. Rao had signed off on the final product.
But there’s more to it than that.
It is common practice for CEOs to have their own staff members write op-eds on their behalf, in exactly the same way that speechwriters put together words to be delivered by the president of the United States.
But these professionals work for the officials in question. Their duties formally include writing speeches, op-eds or other presentations for their bosses.
For the record, at The Daily Progress we strongly encourage that op-eds be the original work of the person whose name appears as author (and require it for letters to the editor). But we accept the industry practice in which high-ranking officials delegate the bulk of such work to employees.
The difficulty with the op-ed that carried Mr. Rao’s name was that it was primarily authored not by one of his employees, but rather by an “employee” of the developer.
This raises concerns over conflict of interest.
No matter how much the president’s office might protest that the op-ed expressed Mr. Rao’s sentiments, a reader might legitimately assume that a hidden agenda existed. An op-ed authored by a consultant for the developer might be suspected of advancing the developer’s economic interests rather than those of the university.
Having an op-ed written by a developer’s consultant and passed off as the work of a public employee such as the president of a state-supported university is rather like allowing special-interests from the private sector to write legislation benefiting them.
Ethics experts say that at the very least, the president’s office should have revealed the consultant’s involvement up front. It failed to do so.
These concerns are worth airing because newspapers’ credibility is vitally important to all of us — those of us who work in the business and those of you who look to us for trustworthy information.
We can’t promise to prevent every attempt to abuse our policy of allowing others to have their say in our publication, whether op-eds or letters to the editor. But we are alert to the possibility of such manipulation and do our very best to avert it.