The Media’s Duty to Disclose Bias
Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is a professor of Constitutional Law, with a solid knowledge of ethics as well as being a practicing attorney. His scholarly good looks became very familiar during the Monica media frenzy, when his harsh evaluation of President Clinton’s conduct made him a favorite commentator at Fox News, and an occasional presence on other networks. He’s a good one, to be sure: intense, clear, expressive and easy on the ears. Monica Madness over-exposed him, and for several years Turley became less evident on the media scene in favor of other talking heads; some suspected that he had become persona non grata in the pro-Clinton newsrooms at CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS. He was missed, at least here. A competent and engaging lawyer with an ethics orientation is a valuable addition to the discussion of many issues, and nobody filled the gap left by Turley’s absence.
Now Turley is back, this time on more that just Fox News. The reason his expertise is needed is the boiling controversy over the Bush Administration’s surveillance of citizen conversations with suspected terrorists, which has been proceeding without the court orders seemingly required by law. Once again, he is arguing that a president has crossed the line. Turley says Bush’s defiance of the law is an impeachable offense. This has made him less popular at Fox, predictably; it has also may have made him more acceptable to the other networks as well as major print media, who are suddenly quoting him.
Welcome back, Professor Turley. But there’s a problem, and one that is not of his making. Turley isn’t just a disinterested commentator this time around. He has a dog in this hunt: he currently represents Muslim spiritual leader and Islamic scholar Ali al-Timimi, who is appealing his Virginia terrorism conviction which stemmed from his urging followers to fight with the Taliban. Al-Timimi’s appeal could well hinge on the legality of the wiretaps, which may have helped convict him.
Professor Turley is doing nothing wrong by taking a public opinion that furthers his client’s interests. But the fact that it does has a bearing on his credibility; he is not a disinterested party. News media that feature Turley’s commentary have an obligation to alert their viewers or readers to his possible bias on the issue, and very few have. A quick Google search shows that only a tiny percentage of articles including Turley’s opinions on the domestic surveillance program mention his convicted client, who would be a prime subject for the wiretaps he says are unconstitutional.
Call it sloppy, lazy, careless or just plain unethical, promoting a scholar as a neutral expert when he has a clear motivation to take a particular position is unacceptable. If the Scoreboard, like the prominent conservative blogs, were determined to find media bias behind every example of ethics ineptitude, it might posit that Turley’s sudden re-emergence has been fueled by the desire on behalf of anti-Bush producers and reporters to get a vocal critic of President Clinton’s conduct on the air calling for Bush’s impeachment. “If he was credible them, he’s credible now!” But Turley is not as credible now, not on this topic. He has taken a position that is favorable to his client his paying client. Experience teaches us that this probably isn’t an intentional deception, but merely business as usual— typically unprofessional behavior by the media.
Turley might well be espousing the same opinion about President Bush if he wasn’t representing Ali al-Timimi. Nonetheless, the fact that he is representing him requires that those hearing and reading his opinion know about the possible source of bias so they can make their own determination. It is unethical and misleading to present a partisan expert as a neutral one.