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NBC's Relationship with Trump Fraught with Ethical Shortcomings

NBC news failed to disclose its business relationships with Trump in stories that were critical of his business empire, and outright promoted his and his daughter’s businesses on Today.

With at least two joint business ventures, NBC had an obvious incentive to downplay the reality TV star’s failures. NBC apparently thought it was necessary to disclose its business relationship with Trump, as it did in many stories about Miss USA. But when it came to disclosing in stories on Trump’s business failures, the network missed the mark.

Specifically, NBC failed to disclose in stories on Trump University, Atlantic City closings, and Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts filing for bankruptcy.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics advises journalists to, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” It also encourages journalists to “explain ethical choices and processes to audiences.”  

NBC not only failed to disclose conflicts of interests, it flaunted them by promoting the Trumps’ businesses and even broadcasting from Trump venues.

Today featured items from Ivanka’s fashion line at least a dozen times, and included Trump’s venues many times during segments on getaway deals. The SPJ Code of Ethics warns against this type of behavior and directs journalists to “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

NBC anchor Lester Holt opened the Dateline lottery episode on March 3, 2013, in one of Trump’s penthouses, which Holt described as “incredible.” Similarly, Campbell Brown described Trump’s golf courses as “phenomenal” on May 29, 2005, and basically reported a puff piece on him and his golf course Trump National.

Today seemed to violate SPJ’s admonition against special favors as well, and engaged in behavior that raised questions about the integrity of its reporting.

For example, Trump provided hotel and airfare for Today anchors Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb to travel to the Bahamas, where they hosted Today on Feb. 9, 2012. The month beforehand, on Jan. 23, 2012, Today gave away a three-night stay at the Trump International Beach Resort to its “Fan of the Week.”

Kotb and Gifford hosted Today at the Trump International Hotel & Tower on April 29, 2011, during a special viewing party for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. Then Today anchor Ann Curry also performed improv from Trump Towers on Nov. 4, 2009.

Gifford, Kotb, Couric, and Lauer all reminisced about outings at Trump venues during Today broadcasts. Lauer and Couric, for example, both attended Trump’s wedding in 2005 and mentioned it multiple times on Today.

SPJ ethics expert Fred Brown indicated that the standards for Couric and Lauer were lower because they were likely more “entertainers” than journalists.

“Matt Lauer and Katie Couric were as much entertainers as journalists. Maybe more entertainers,” Brown told MRC Business.

However, NBCUniversal brands Today as a “news” broadcast that is part of the company’s NBC News division, according to its website.

In 2012, NBC donated $500,000 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, but refused to comment on it when The Washington Post asked. Many of these actions seemed to violate another SPJ’s standard: “Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”

MRC Business reached out to NBCUniversal multiple times for information on the duration of Trump’s relationship with the network, but never received a response.