Trump's ties to 'Apprentice' raises conflict issues for NBC

By The Canadian Press
December 9, 2016 - 1:15pm

NEW YORK — Donald Trump's continued stake in television's "Celebrity Apprentice" adds to questions about potential conflicts between his personal and public responsibilities, while raising new ones about NBC.

If it continues, journalists at NBC News will be covering a president for a corporation whose entertainment division retains ties to the man. The reality show, which returns to NBC's schedule on Jan. 2 with Arnold Schwarzenegger replacing Trump as host, includes the president-elect as one of its executive producers.

Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway said Friday on CNN that Trump's ties to the reality show are being reviewed by experts looking into the president-elect's business ties. She compared Trump's continued interest in the entertainment industry to President Barack Obama's off-hours golfing.

"Presidents have a right to do things in their spare time, in their leisure time, and nobody objects to that," she said.

The full nature of Trump's involvement in "Celebrity Apprentice" is not clear. An "executive producer" credit is among the most amorphous in Hollywood, and can encompass a person with full backstage control over a show, to someone given a vanity title who doesn't actually do anything. Trump is known to have a financial stake in the show, but how much is unclear; Conway said it's "doubtful" that Trump will be taking money from the show, but added she hasn't talked to him about it.

NBC News declined comment Friday on how long the division had known about Trump's production credit, revealed in a story by Variety on Thursday. Trump's name is not included among the four people listed as executive producers of the show on the network's website.

"It's just so mind-boggling on so many levels," said Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive who taught journalism at Stony Brook University. "It is a clear conflict of interest to me that a company that has a news division is covering the president of the United States who has an interest in a show on that network.

"How do you remain unbiased?" she asked. "The onus is on NBC to say, 'we can't do this.'"

People want to believe in an independent news division not affected by business ties, said Aly Colon, an expert in journalist ethics at Washington & Lee University who once worked in NBC's standards department. He said he's sure the issues are being considered at NBC.

"A lot of people find it difficult to believe there is a wall between news and entertainment," Colon said.

The liberal watchdog Media Matters for America on Friday launched a petition drive calling on NBC to cut ties with Trump, saying reporters are put in an untenable spot and that no amount of disclosure is enough when a network is financially invested in the president.

While the show, retitled "New Celebrity Apprentice," is identified with NBC, Trump's financial involvement is with the production company MGM. Veteran reality show producer Mark Burnett, who created the show, is president of MGM Television and Digital Group.

NBC News spokesman Mark Kornblau dismissed the concerns on Friday.

"Donald Trump's credit on an entertainment show will have absolutely no bearing on the good and important work that is done every day by the outstanding journalists of NBC News," Kornblau said.

Outside financial interests are hardly unheard of among presidents. Obama's 2015 financial disclosure lists earnings from two books written before he was president, "Dreams From My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope." The books' publishers are not financially tied to news divisions.

NBC previously faced scrutiny over its business dealings with Trump. The company severed its relationship to the mogul as a beauty pageant producer in 2015 following remarks he had made about Mexicans in the speech announcing his presidential candidacy. Later in the campaign, Trump hosted NBC's "Saturday Night Live," a show that he now denounces because of its skits about him.

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Associated Press writers Lynn Elber in Los Angeles and Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.

David Bauder, The Associated Press

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