What Does the Shadow Know: A Conflict of Interest at CNN

When CNN political analyst Bill Schneider goes to work each day, he usually drives to the network’s Washington headquarters, parks his car in the underground garage, and, before taking the elevator up to his office on the eighth floor, enters the building through the back way. Schneider is not known, at least among the security personnel, to walk through the main doors of the building and say hello to the guard working at the front desk.

If he wanted to, he could hop on the Metro with hundreds of other subway riders, get off at the Union Station stop, and, after wending his way through the crowds lined five deep on First Street, stroll a block and a half to the office, basking in the recognition of passersby. But even though he appears almost daily be­fore millions of TV viewers, Schneider prefers to keep the public at arm’s length whenever possible.

Schneider is shadowy in other areas of his professional life as well. Without anyone really knowing it, Schneider—until recently—served on the board of advisors for the Center for the Advancement of Women, a nonprofit group that does research on behalf of abortion rights and feminist causes. The president of the center is Faye Wattleton, who from 1977 to 1989 headed Planned Parenthood. (Though the nonprofit does not promote abortion, Wattleton’s old job is central to the group’s mis­sion. According to its Web site, Wattleton’s “experience as a leader in the struggle for women’s rights positions the Center’s ability to speak for women everywhere.”)

What exactly Schneider did for the organization is un­certain. Wattleton wrote via e-mail that Schneider “gave [a] speech to California activists on the political climate in the nation’s capitol.” She later added, paradoxically, that Schnei­der has “not been asked to represent the Center or its posi­tions in a public forum.” However, when asked what ser­vices members of the advisory board provide, she noted that they offer “their analysis and advice on research and public information programs.” Schneider, for his part, denies pro­viding any work or advice for the organization (which was formerly called the Center for Gender Equality). “I’m on the board, but I’m not a participant,” he said in September 2005, not very convincingly. Both sides agreed that Schneider had served on the 13-member unpaid board since 2001.

If you want to know why the media often present mis­leading and incomplete information about Roe v. Wade, it’s partly because they rely on people like Schneider. He’s a member of a shadowy elite of analysts, pollsters, and aca­demics with ties to the abortion industry. They provide the press with quotes, poll results, and articles about abor­tion without ever really disclosing their work on behalf of abortion-rights groups; they don’t cover up their work for pro-choice organizations, but they don’t mention it either. No wonder, then, that much of the media pass off biased data about abortion that are sometimes little more than propaganda.

In late August, the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed two women with ties to the abortion industry for trying to mis­lead the public. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association had claimed that pre-born humans are unlikely to feel pain until the 29th week in the womb, an assertion that, if true, would have undercut congressional legislation dealing with the issue. What the Inquirer revealed was that Eleanor Drey, the medical director of an abortion clinic, and Susan Lee, a former employee with the organization then called the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), were two of the article’s five authors.

The press often fails to uncover such conflicts of inter­est. Take the media coverage of Democratic pollster Peter Hart. His polling firm, Peter D. Hart Associates, conducted a poll in May 2005 about American attitudes toward abor­tion for NBC News/Wall Street Journal. A full 55 percent of re­spondents answered that “the choice on abortion should be left up to the woman and her doctor.” If that phrase sounds suspicious, it’s because it’s the mantra of the pro-choice cause. Not coincidentally, Hart’s firm in 1998 and 1999 did polls on behalf of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, respectively. Yet no one in the media saw fit to report that Hart had taken money from the abortion industry.

Of course, one should be wary of claiming that the three were acting as secret agents for the abortion industry. But it is fair to ask whether their loyalties and judgments were com­promised. In the case of Bill Schneider, his unpaid service to Wattleton’s organization raises a more specific set of ques­tions. Chief among them: Did he, wittingly or not, advance the Center for the Advancement of Women’s agenda?

A nearly bald, oval-shaped man, Schneider’s success has not come by way of matinee-idol good looks or original re­porting. Like many in the secular clerisy, the 59-year-old is where he is due to his sharp mind, glib tongue, and smooth prose. His byline appears regularly in the top publications in the country, such as the Atlantic Monthly and National Journal. Until 2006, he was a visiting fellow for years at the American Enterprise Institute. He counts among his former students the columnist and best-selling author E. J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post.

At the same time, Schneider’s reputation in Congress is not nearly as golden; a top House Republican aide called him respected but “not someone whose advice we would follow,” while a top House Democratic staffer labeled him smart but “out of vogue.” Even so, Schneider remains influ­ential in certain parts of academia, politics, and the media. He has won awards in recent years from Harvard’s Gradu­ate School of Arts and Sciences (2003) and the American Association of Political Consultants (2001). A 1987 pro­file in the Boston Globe even dubbed him “the Aristotle of American Politics.”

Throughout this time, Schneider’s political leanings have been subject to speculation. According to the Globe profile, at Harvard, where he taught political science from 1972 to 1979, Schneider was viewed as a liberal Republi­can, while in Washington he was considered a moderate Democrat. Both sides still view him the same way today; a Republican leadership aide called him a moderate-to-left Democrat, while some liberals in the blogosphere label him a conservative.

What those descriptions ignore is his longtime af­filiation with abortion-rights organizations and figures. In the Globe profile, Schneider acknowledged giving a paid speech to Planned Parenthood. In August of that same year, Schneider donated $1,000 to the congressional campaign of Georgia Democrat David Worley, a pro-choice candi­date who was running against Newt Gingrich. Worley was one of Schneider’s students at Harvard in the 1970s.

Schneider denies having any position on the abortion issue. “I’m not pro-life or pro-choice,” he said. He added, voluntarily, that Wattleton is “an old friend” and that she asked him to join the board. To be fair, Schneider’s early writings don’t read like something coming from a spokes­man for the abortion industry. In an October 1992 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Schneider painted a multi-hued portrait of public attitudes toward abortion. He noted, for example, that “Americans have been uneasy about the status quo un­der Roe—they feel that far too many of the 1.5 million legal abortions performed in this country every year are being done for the purpose of birth control.”

Even so, his extracurricular activities drew scorn from at least one media ethicist. Gary Hill, chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, said that Schneider’s political contribution was a clear if under­standable violation of journalistic ethics. “Columnists and analysts are given more latitude than reporters, but he was an analyst. It’s something I would advise to steer clear of…. Journalists are supposed to shun political involvement.”

The more relevant question is not whether Schneider is a secret political actor, but whether his ties to Wattleton’s organization have compromised his public analysis.

Certainly, his recent claims about battles over Supreme Court nominations have flip-flopped. In a July 9, 2005, col­umn for the National Journal, Schneider cited a CNN/USA Today poll about the alleged popularity of Roe to contend that liberals could throw their weight around. He wrote, “[Liberals] can demand that Democratic senators assert their right to filibuster the nomination, on the grounds that a threat to roll back abortion rights is an ‘extraordinary cir­cumstance.”‘ Yet two years earlier, Schneider made nearly the opposite claim. In June 2003, the center had released an extensive survey that found, among other things, that 51 percent of women opposed legal abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and maternal endangerment. In a June 28, 2003, story for National Journal, Schneider wrote, “The mes­sage [of the study] is clear: For most women today, quality-of-life issues prevail over women’s rights. This shift is likely to put liberals at a distinct disadvantage in any fight over a Supreme Court nominee” (emphasis added).

In addition, Schneider’s July 9, 2005, column about the Supreme Court seemed to offer advice to liberals. He noted that liberals could “demand that Democratic senators assert their right to filibuster the nomination” of someone opposed to Roe v. Wade. He offered no similar advice to the other side: that conservatives demand the nominee oppose Roe. Instead, Schneider predicted that conservatives would “call for pulling the ‘nuclear’ trigger,” which is to say that they would prevent Democrats from filibustering a nomi­nee. A top House Republican aide, who respects Schneider’s analysis, described the section in question as political in na­ture: “He was putting it out there for Democratic senators to have a reason to vote against Bush’s nominee.” However, National Journal editor Charlie Green defended Schneider’s column saying, “I don’t see it as offering advice.”

Schneider’s columns are not his only work that raises questions. On June 24, 2003, Wattleton was interviewed about her organization’s report for five minutes on CNN. In the course of the interview with news anchor Judy Wood­ruff, Wattleton seized the opportunity to promote the abor­tion industry’s agenda. For example, she argued that pro-choice advocates “need to get through a message that this is not about restricting the choices of women but enabling women to have that choice with their doctor’s consent and in the best interests of their health.” Did Schneider help get Wattleton air-time on the network? It’s a legitimate ques­tion; Wattleton didn’t tout the study’s results on any other national TV network. A CNN spokeswoman did not com­ment about Wattleton’s appearance.

Weeks after I spoke with Schneider—as well as offi­cials with CNN and Wattleton’s organization—about his position on the board, his name was removed from the center’s Web site. A CNN spokesperson failed to respond. Schneider’s hasty departure suggests some measure of ethi­cal concern on his part and that of CNN. According to Hill, “It’s not advisable for a political analyst to be on one side of the issue or the other. Either he should not report [on the issue of abortion], which I don’t think is advisable, or he should disclose it…. They’re in the middle of divisive is­sues, and a political person should steer clear of them. The problem is when people call his work into question.”

Conservatives and pro-lifers might legitimately ask another question: Who cares if the mainstream media rely on figures like Schneider and Hart to inform them about Roe v. Wade and abortion? After all, there is now a vibrant conservative media that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago. Forget for a moment the purpose of the press in a free society—to report news objectively. Instead, ask yourself why so many middle-of-the-road Americans view Roe v. Wade favorably. Might this be partly because they don’t hear an alternative voice?

Matt Robinson—the author of Mobocracy, a book on the polling industry, and now a speechwriter at the White House—thinks it is. “There’s no alternative frame [of ref­erence]. That’s the key,” he said. Robinson’s right. CNN’s viewership in the United States may have declined, and it may be that only the elite read top media publications. But even so, the combined circulation represents a substantial portion of Americans, not to mention those who wield political power.


  • Mark Stricherz

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...