In Other Sunu-news…A Question of Journalistic Ethics

Hey, you journos out there — a question:

A columnist pens a denunciation of new federal policy. The new policy also happens to be contrary to the interests of a former client. Is disclosure required?

I’m asking, of course, for John E. Sununu, the former New Hampshire Senator whose opinions appear bi-weekly in the Globe. Sununu is a man of many interests, including those of the lobbying firm Akin Gump, where he serves as Adjunct Senior Policy Advisor. His op-eds have attracted the attention of media watchdogs who have pointed out numerous instances in which he has failed to disclose that his opinions coincide with the opinions of those who are paying him.

For instance, a Sununu column in support of the Keystone Pipeline failed to disclose that a company interested in building the pipeline is a client of Akin Gump. And more recently, as Media Matters reported, a Sununu column excoriating President Obama on the issue of net neutrality (“Obama’s bureaucrats reach ever deeper into the economy, pursuing expensive and unnecessary regulation of the internet”) neglected to mention that its author is the “highly-paid honorary co-chair of Broadband for America, an organization whose members have included major broadband providers and has been heavily funded by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.”

The Globe has seemed deeply uninterested in investigating the alleged infractions, but after this most recent failure to disclose and after some prodding by Dan Kennedy and BlueMassGroup, the Globe announced that Sununu will not write about the internet and, in any column about the presidential election, he will disclose that he supports Republican candidate John Kasich.

These two modest constraints still leave a lot of room for possible conflicts, which brings us to the September 14th column, “Obama Promotes Shell Game in Student Loan System,” in which Sununu vigorously decries new federal policies on student loans. The money quote: “With borrowers awash in a sea of debt, and the system taking on record defaults, the president and his allies blithely concoct different ways for those borrowers to walk away from their obligations.”

The new regulations come in response to widespread abuses by for-profit educational institutions over the past decade: “exorbitant tuition, aggressive recruiting practices, abysmal student outcomes, taxpayer dollars spent on marketing and pocketed as profit, and regulatory evasion and manipulation”:

  • Pell Grants to for-profit schools increased from $1.1 billion in the 2000-2001 school year to $7.5 billion in the 2009-2010 school year.
  • These schools receive most of their revenue from the federal government in the form of federal student grants and loans, including $32 billion in 2009-2010.
  • Students at for-profit institutions typically have poor outcomes. Many are unable to obtain employment.
  • Overall, the 12 percent of students at for-profit schools nationally account for about 48 percent of all student loan defaults.

The new policies that Sununu disapproves of require these schools to provide information to prospective students about the costs of their programs and the graduation rates, earnings and educational debt load of those who enroll. In addition, students at one of the largest of the for-profit schools, Corinthian Colleges, Inc., which sold or closed (without notice) all of its locations between February and April of this year following numerous enforcement actions, would be eligible to apply for some form of forgiveness or forbearance of the debts they had incurred — or as Sununu put it, to “walk away from their obligations.” The multiple lawsuits — by the federal government and by many states, including Massachusetts — led to the school’s bankruptcy filing in May.

So you can guess where this is going. Last year, as part of an effort to derail the Obama administration’s plans to regulate these for-profit schools, Corinthian Colleges hired the lobbying firm Sununu is associated with, Akin Gump, paying the lobbying firm $120,000. This year, with Corinthian having shuttered its schools and declared bankruptcy, it is apparently an Akin Gump client no longer.

One hopes to the contrary, but fears that for both Mr. Sununu and the Globe, this is the end of the story.

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