Editor’s note: This commentary references Dr. Michael Osterholm as a television commentator. The piece should have noted that Osterholm is a co-owner of the condo referenced. Osterholm has never received any money for media interviews or public health messaging, nor has he ever received money from pharmaceutical companies, including vaccine manufacturers. MinnPost regrets any inference otherwise.
It has been rather common in the past few years (particularly on public broadcasting outlets) for the on-air host to state something like, “Full disclosure here … XYZ Company is a funder of this program,” especially if the topic of the forthcoming story is about XYZ Company. And such an advisory is probably a good thing.
Recently, however, I have found myself wanting more full disclosure regarding the many experts, analysts, insiders, former insiders and contributors, who occupy the little talking head boxes on my television screen and talk about whatever the topic of the day might be. Think people like Dr. Michael Osterholm, the very visible public health doctorate and big thinker from the University of Minnesota. Or his counterpart from Brown University, Dr. Ashish Jha, another of the more ever-present medical experts often called on for comment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Add to that, many, many retired generals, admirals, colonels, former secretaries, under-secretaries, deputy secretaries and assistant secretaries who seem to be readily available for Zoom type interviews on their area of expertise, not to mention the many “news celebrities” who regularly appear on panels: folks like Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Tom Friedman, etc. as well as historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Meacham and others.
A recent article in a Minneapolis news media reported that our new seemingly favorite son, the aforementioned Osterholm, just purchased a condo in the brand new 42-story Minneapolis tower called “Eleven,” which is near the University of Minnesota and overlooks the campus and the Mississippi River on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. He reportedly paid $3.4 million.
Needless to say, this caught my eye. I have been watching Osterholm on local and national television as an expert on infectious diseases for probably 40 years now, and it is not my point here to discredit his competence or knowledge. It is impressive and vast. Actually, the first thought to come to mind was, “Does a University of Minnesota professor earn enough to afford that?” This led me to wonder whether he or other oft-called upon experts were paid for their appearances on the many shows they frequent, or if they did it as a public service, as a part of their job, or as free (“earned”) media to boost sales of a book or some other money generator.
Could we benefit from a “system of classification” of these folks so that we might better judge their objectivity as they pontificate for our benefit? Think of categories such as these becoming a part of their introduction and the label under their talking head on the screen.
Here are some possibilities:
- Paid contributor: The party owes a part of their income to showing up or being on call for this news entity and, as such, may tilt their comments so as to stay in favor with that news entity.
- Public service appearance: The party is on the air because their paid public employment includes such activities as a part of their outreach mission.
- Appearing on behalf of an entity with a vested interest: The party is on because they are on the board of XYZ entity or are an advisor to XYZ entity and the expectation of XYZ entity is that their appearance will benefit (or, at least not hurt) XYZ entity.
- Promotional appearance: The party is on the program to impart their wisdom, but will be permitted to or be introduced by mention of their recent book or article, or be allowed to have the book visible on their prominent book case in their Zoom/Skype/WebEx frame.
This list may not be exhaustive, but I hope it starts some consideration of this topic among producers/creators of news and information programs.
Paul Linnee, charter funder and sustaining member of the MinnPost community, is a longtime resident of Minneapolis, and now Bloomington.