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. Associated Press 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, Colo., 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 an active fund-raiser 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 the first time one of the nation’s leading news anchors has had 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 Couric’s network of charitable connections be viewed any differently?

What is to say that — as was suggested with Delay — the celebrities, 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 more than 60 morning-show segments in the last six years mentioning either EIF or NCCRA.

In fact, there is a political component to 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 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 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 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.