KUSI anchor Anna Laurel at 4 p.m. Monday newscast told viewers that exclusive interview with Rep. Duncan Hunter was conducted on condition that certain questions had to be asked.
KUSI anchor Anna Laurel at 4 p.m. Monday newscast told viewers that exclusive interview with Rep. Duncan Hunter on his coming guilty plea was conducted on condition that certain questions had to be asked. Image via KUSI.com

When Rep. Duncan D. Hunter stood outdoors before cameras Tuesday after his guilty plea in federal court, he declined to take questions, saying his full statement was on KUSI-TV.

That statement, posted online Monday morning and aired on evening newscasts, raised questions of its own for the San Diego station (Channel 51) owned by McKinnon Broadcasting.

Times of San Diego sought the views of local journalism and public relations experts on whether KUSI and reporter Steve Bosh, who interviewed the Alpine Republican, were meeting ethical standards.

At first, it was unclear whether Bosh, 79, was reading from a script.

But the station itself clarified that when 4 p.m. anchor Anna Laurel introduced the Bosh-Hunter segment by saying: “The congressman granted an interview exclusive only to KUSI on the condition that we agree to [ask] a series of questions.”

On Wednesday, Hunter spokesman Michael Harrison resolved another uncertainty.

He said he sent a prepared statement to local media after the interview aired rather than an actual transcript.

(“If it’s useful,” Harrison wrote about 1:30 p.m. Monday, “please find attached a copy of the transcript from Congressman Hunter’s interview with KUSI-San Diego this morning.”)

Harrison called the mislabeling “my mistake.” He took full responsibility and apologized for “the confusion it created.”

He detailed how the interview was conducted and why the independent station was chosen: “We have a long-standing professional relationship with KUSI, and we inquired if they would assist with the interview.”

Concerned that Hunter might not have access to a teleprompter, Harrison said he organized the statement into separate parts with questions Bosh would ask to “help with the flow” while allowing the six-term congressman to “fully provide the statement he wanted to make.”

“Congressman Hunter … at times made a few extraneous comments that slightly differed from the prepared statement,” Harrison said. “When the interview concluded, KUSI wanted to take some alternate shots of Congressman Hunter with the reporter at which point I took the prepared statement he was utilizing during the interview to ensure it wasn’t inadvertently left behind when we had concluded.”

He called Bosh an excellent and respected reporter and KUSI an outstanding news organization that has “always demonstrated journalistic integrity and reporting. We appreciate their interest and availability in conducting an important interview with Congressman Hunter.”

But was KUSI’s scripted interview journalism or public relations?

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter looked down about a dozen times during Steve Bosh interview. Image via KUSI.com

Local experts weren’t unanimous.

“It would have been better if KUSI would have been able to ask their own questions in addition to those prepared by public relations handlers,” said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Referring to the Harrison explanation, Nelson said: “This … only proves my point that this was not really journalism — it was a free ad. Had it been real journalism, the reporter would have asked follow-ups, challenged contradictions, and brought in additional points of view.”

Nelson says KUSI served Hunter’s public relations interests but not the public interest and “what journalism is supposed to do.”

Ex-NBC San Diego and KPBS reporter Lynn Walsh, a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, is now the SPJ ethics chair and assistant director of TrustingNews.org.

She saluted KUSI for being transparent about its agreement to use provided questions and encouraged other news outlets to do the same.

But Walsh said a news organization that agrees to an interview under restrictive terms should include more of an explanation.

“Just saying, ‘agreed to the exclusive on condition that we agree to a series of questions’ leaves lots of questions for the viewer,” she said via email. “Like: Did the journalists draft the questions and then send them for approval? Were the questions just sent to the news organization and they agree to them? Were there questions that the news organization wanted to ask but could not in order to get the interview? I think more details should be provided.”

As a best practice, she said, journalists and news organizations shouldn’t agree on questions being asked in order to secure an interview, “especially with people in power like a politician.”

A current San Diego broadcast veteran, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said: “I would never under any circumstances allow the subject of an interview to do that, especially an elected official.”

The news professional suggested the station’s ownership has a conservative political agenda that aligns with Hunter’s and thus was willing to accept the conditions for the interview.

A veteran public relations professional had a different take.

“It’s not a high crime or misdemeanor to provide a prepared statement or talking points for a client interview, especially when the client has been attacked by the press,” said Rick Griffin, a Times of San Diego marketing columnist who in 2017 won the San Diego Press Club’s Andy Mace Award — a lifetime achievement honor in public relations.

Just because Hunter picked one local TV station over another, or looks down at notes during his interview, has “zero connection with ethics,” Griffin said.

“It is not unethical for PR professionals to prepare sample questions that are provided to a broadcast journalist to consider asking when their political bosses are interviewed,” he said. “The broadcast journalist is still calling the shots and asking whatever question he or she wants to ask.”

Griffin also disputes those who say KUSI has a political ax to grind.

“I have not found KUSI’s newsroom staff or management showing any favoritism to either conservative Republican or left-leaning liberal Democratic guests,” he said. “Guests from all political viewpoints appear on their news programs.”

Anne Krueger, a former San Diego Union-Tribune reporter, takes Griffin’s side up to a point. She’s the longtime communications and public information director for the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District.

“When we have someone from the district appear on a studio interview, I will write some suggested questions to help guide the reporters,” she said. “However, I’m aware they are journalists, and I know they don’t have to use the questions or they may ask other questions.”

KUSI News Director Steve Cohen responded: “I thought the congressman was deserving of a safe haven for an interview, where he could cogently and without the extraneous pressure of the mob say his piece. And there was no scenario I could construct that would have altered his message/therefore I agreed to a series of obvious questions. To call it PR is so much professorial delusion, and competitive balderdash.”

Nelson, the longtime journalism observer at Point Loma Nazarene, said he’s glad KUSI “came clean” and told its audience that what they were going to see “was a public relations stunt instead of journalism.”

But he added: “What I think would have been more defensible (and more journalistically sound) is if they would have agreed to ask those prepared questions as long as they could ask their own as well. That would have been better. But still, KUSI did the right thing … by telling viewers they weren’t getting the entire story.”

PR veteran Griffin has worked for the Grossmont-Cuyamaca college district as well as the Grossmont Healthcare District.

In response to Times of San Diego queries about a scripted KUSI interview, Griffin said: “You are ignoring the fact that many interviews on MSNBC and CNN are entirely scripted.”

Longtime KUSI reporter Steve Bosh was briefly shown with Rep. Duncan D. Hunter in interview that aired Monday morning. Image via KUSI.com

At Tuesday’s press encounter — lasting 18 seconds — Congressman Hunter said: “I failed to monitor and account for my campaign expenses. I made mistakes.”

He concluded: “That was what today was all about. With that being said, I’ll have more statements in the future about the future.”

KUSI reporter Bosh declined to publicly address questions other than to stress that the Anna Laurel lead-in to his Hunter interview wasn’t a suspect addition to previous versions of the chat.

“It was part of the anchor-toss to me, so it was up front,” said Bosh, whose four voice-over questions were dubbed in on later airings. “That’s [how] the process works in TV.”

KUSI news chief Cohen confirmed that the Hunter interview took place at Channel 51 studios in Kearny Mesa, but declined to say exactly when.

“I was pleased we got the interview, and I made it available to everyone,” Cohen said.

Regarding critics of KUSI journalism ethics, he said: “They are entitled to their opinion.”

Updated at 6:17 p.m. Dec. 4, 2019