ABC's Bob Woodruff Reported on Liberal Group Without Disclosing Financial Ties to It

February 1st, 2011 3:49 PM

ABC reporter Bob Woodruff has helped raise money for a liberal environmental advocacy group while reporting on environmental issues for ABC, in direct violation of the network's ethics politcies, according to our friends at Big Journalism (who picked up on an investigation by the Enterprise Report).

Woodruff even reported on the group he helped raise funds for - Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s Waterkeeper Alliance - and dubbed one of its advisory board members one of the "six people helping to save our planet," all without disclosing his financial ties to the group.

ABC acknowledged that Woodruff's actions violate its ethics policies, according to the Enterprise Report, and insisted that it will take "appropriate disciplinary action," but neglected to elaborate any further.

In August 2009, ABC subsidiary channel "Planet Green" teased its "Troubled Water" episode of Woodruff's now off-the-air program "Focus Earth" with this paragraph:

Then ride along the Hudson River with Bob Woodruff and Robert Kennedy, Jr. to learn about the Riverkeeper Alliance and its effort to hold Exxon accountable for its role in cleaning up the heavily polluted Newtown Creek. The Brooklyn waterway has been the site of an ongoing battle between neighborhood residents and the oil giant that spewed toxins into the air and water for years.

Four months earlier, "Planet Green" examined "6 People Saving Our Planet," as the episode was titled. One of the six was Phillipe Cousteau Jr. (grandson of Jacques Cousteau), who sits on the Waterkeeper Alliance's Leadership Advisory Council.

In neither of these episodes did Woodruff disclose his ties to the Waterkeeper Alliance.

ABC News spokesperson Cathie Levine confirmed to the Enterprise Report's Eric Longabardi last week, Longabardi told me in a phone conversation, that Woodruff has attended the Waterkeeper Alliance's annual Deer Valley Celebrity Skifest fund-raising event for the past six years.

Levine insisted that Woodruff only attended because his brother and sister-in-law run a production company that works the event. But Woodruff's name and his ABC News affiliation appear on a press release issued by the Waterkeeper Alliance in anticipation of the event. In other words, Woodruff's name was used to bill the fundraiser.

Levine also told Longabardi that Woodruff had purchased an item at the Waterkeeper Alliance auction, from which the organization receives 20 percent of its operating expenses, according to Kennedy. Though a list of items sold in the 2010 auction is apparently unavailable, in 2007 the average closing bid was over $20,000 (one item, a 2008 Lexus RS, went for more than $115,000).

The extent of Woodruff's relationship with the Waterkeeper Alliance is not clear. But ABC has confirmed that he both raised money for the organization by purchasing an item in the fund-raising auction, and helped attract other donors to its annual fundraising event by offering his name and affiliation with ABC on the aforementioned press release.

Woodruff has given approving coverage to a key Waterkeeper Alliance campaign, its founder, and a member of its advisory board, without disclosing his ties to the group.

Woodruff has a history of coloring his environemtnal reporting for ABC with a tinge of alarmism. “Facing a clock some say has ticked down to zero," he reported from the 2009 Copenhagen summit, "today 192 nations came together to take on a potential global catastrophe." He hyped ABC's doomsaying special "Earth 2100" by claiming that it presented "what scientists say might very well happen if we do not change our current path."

Clearly ABC did not have a problem with Woodruff openly taking sides on such a contentions political issue. Maybe now that journalistic ethics, not mere political neutrality, is at issue, the network will take a different stance.

Network news competitor NBC has similar rules on the books concerning donations to candidates and political groups by its on-air staff. MSNBC president Phil Griffin cited that policy in November when he suspended Keith Olbermann for making a total $7,200 in contributions to three Democrats. Two weeks later, fellow MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was suspended for his $4,200 in contributions to Republican candidates.

Which is to say, even openly-opinionated TV news personalities are generally subject to rules against political contributions.