I just can’t get over the secret cellphone.
So much is questionable, journalistically speaking, in this week’s revelations about the close relationship between Under Armour founder Kevin Plank and then-Bloomberg anchor and editor Stephanie Ruhle, now with MSNBC. The Wall Street Journal reported that Ruhle, as a prominent journalist, rode on Plank’s private plane and, according to court documents, advised his staff on how to feed information that would contradict a negative report to media, including her own network.
Some of this information has been known for a while, and the actions sure seem fishy, but as Morgan State University journalism professor and former Baltimore Sun reporter Milton Kent told me, “you can explain any part of this [relationship] away” with supporting evidence.
However, the news that Plank and Ruhle communicated on phones just for each other — secret from their companies — and had dedicated email addresses is the line you can’t come back from. “The phone is such an egregious breach of ethics. If you’re NBC [which owns MSNBC], they can fire her for cause just for that,” Kent said. “There is no scenario — none — that you can say, ‘I was a reporter and the source and I have our own secret phone.’ How NBC handles that defines whether she keeps her job.”
Though billionaire Plank referred to Ruhle as an “adviser” for his Baltimore-based enterprise, some have suggested that this admission means the two were having a sexual relationship. But that’s not even my issue with it, professionally. The Wall Street Journal reported that, in a deposition this year pertaining to a lawsuit by an Under Armour shareholder against the company, Ruhle said of Plank, “We were friends, and I covered his company.”
You just can’t do that.
“Rule No. 1 is that you try to be neutral, try to be objective,” said Mark Feldstein, the Richard Eaton Chair of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism. “One of the challenges of being a good journalist is that you want to be close enough to the source to learn what’s going on without becoming so close that you become compromised by it. The danger is if she’s not putting the public first in her journalism but putting her friend first. The more that comes out the fishier it looks, and it looks pretty fishy already.”
I would not blame you if your idea of journalism/source relations is formed by the very many movies and TV shows where a reporter, often a woman, sleeps with the person they are covering. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, but from the moment most of us roll into our first reporting class or accept our shiny inaugural press badge, it’s pressed into our heads that we must maintain a strict distance between ourselves and our subjects in the name of credibility and integrity.
Though Ruhle’s relationship with Plank predates her current employment with MSNBC, she was also an on-air personality with Bloomberg. We don’t know what she disclosed to her current employers about the relationship, but Kent thinks that doesn’t matter, because she did not disclose it to her public, who must trust her. We can’t have readers or viewers questioning why — or why not — we’re writing a story, or the way that we are writing about it, because of a questionable connection to a person or organization.
Kent and Feldstein reminded me of the importance of disclosure, meaning a journalist must immediately inform their bosses of personal or professional ties to anyone they cover, or to people their organization might cover even if they individually don’t report about them.
In the church where I grew up, they used to call that avoiding the appearance of evil, although that was usually more about standing too close to a boy or wearing a short skirt. In that spirit, I hereby disclose that I graduated from the school where Feldstein works 30 years ago, long before it was even called Merrill, and I met Kent two years ago when his church performed a play I wrote before The Baltimore Banner existed. He was also on my podcast last week.
That’s being professional and dotting all the i’s and whatnot. I’m not new to this. I’m not going out for something stupid.
I have been a features reporter, as well as a reviewer and columnist, for most of my 30-year career, so the line is a little blurrier for me because I’m either giving some sort of informed opinion or writing profiles of people with a conversational, familiar tone. But that breeziness makes it even easier to assume there’s hinky stuff happening.
For instance, I had regularly covered the cabaret room at a Palm Beach, Florida, hotel for eight years when I began planning my wedding there. Because I was fond of the place and some of its staff, I had to sign a declaration for my paper, the Palm Beach Post, that I was not accepting any discounts that hadn’t been offered to others. I found out later that a friend at the hotel had wanted to gift me the unlimited mimosas and Bloody Marys we served for lunch, but his colleague suggested he not even bring it up because they knew I’d have to turn it down.
I also disclosed to The Baltimore Banner the week I started that I am related to a local politician who I would not usually cover anyway, but I didn’t want them to find out about our connection randomly. Heck, my colleague Rick Hutzell disclosed, in print, that the subject of one of his stories was my twin sister, just so no one wondered if his editorial choices were favoritism.
In my long career, I’ve also distanced myself from the story of a friend whose romantic relationship with a controversial former network star made national news and a close friend whose mugshot wound up in my last newspaper. As a pal, I regretted the coverage, which I didn’t participate in. As a journalist, I could not stop it. I can’t.
I acknowledge that the brunt of the scrutiny seems to be focused on Ruhle, a consensual equal party in whatever relationship she and Plank had, because the puritanical scrutiny always falls on the woman in these scenarios. That’s not fair. I neither know nor care what Ruhle’s connection to Plank is, whether it’s sexual or whatever. But it’s that appearance of evil and responsibility to make sure the appearances are not evil. How can you trust her without that?
Though we know that Ruhle intervened in business in 2016 by advising Plank to specifically refute a negative report from Morgan Stanley about Under Armour to other outlets, and her own, it would still matter even if the relationship was solely personal with no professional overlap.
“Our first responsibility is to them, to the readers, that we are not in some way compromised,” Feldstein said. “These are the big questions that hover over Stephanie Ruhle. The only thing that a journalist has is their credibility. Once that’s gone, that’s gone forever.”