Savannah Guthrie interviewed Amber Heard after her husband worked for Johnny Depp's lawyers. Ethics experts say she should have stayed away from the story.

·7 min read
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Amber Heard and Savannah Guthrie.Michael Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS; REUTERS/Danny Moloshok
  • Savannah Guthrie's husband worked for Johnny Depp's legal team before she interviewed Amber Heard and others involved in the actors' defamation case.

  • Journalism ethics experts said NBC News should have found someone else to do the interviews.

  • An NBC News executive told Insider that Heard "chose to be interviewed" by Guthrie knowing her husband's work.

Before interviewing Johnny Depp's attorneys earlier in June, the "Today" show coanchor Savannah Guthrie had a message for her viewers.

"A quick disclosure: My husband has done consulting work for the Depp legal team, but not in connection with this interview," Guthrie said, before turning to the lawyers, Benjamin Chew and Camille Vasquez. "So with that aside, let me ask you, did you speak to your client right after the verdict?"

The disclosure raised eyebrows from journalism-ethics experts interviewed by Insider. A few days earlier, Guthrie interviewed Heard's lawyer Elaine Bredehoft. And days later, she sat down with Heard in Heard's first interview following a crushing loss in her defamation trial with Depp. Jurors found that Depp and Heard defamed each other but sided mostly with Depp and awarded him millions of dollars more in damages.

While Guthrie, NBC's chief legal correspondent and an attorney herself, is normally the go-to "Today" anchor for high-profile legal issues, the observers say she should've never done the interviews at all.

Rebecca Aguilar, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, which publishes an ethics code for the profession, said journalists should "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived."

She said the work of Guthrie's husband, the public-relations consultant Mike Feldman, qualified.

"Ms. Guthrie was transparent by letting viewers know her husband worked for the Depp legal team before her interview aired on the 'Today' show," Aguilar told Insider. "Still, she could have avoided becoming part of the story by allowing another NBC anchor to interview the Depp team and later with Ms. Amber Heard. Ms. Guthrie should be far away from this story to show her viewers that she is fair, transparent, and ethical."

An NBC News executive, whose identity is known to Insider but who was not authorized to speak on the record, told Insider that Guthrie's interview spoke for itself.

"Savannah disclosed on air that her husband did consulting work for Depp's law firm. She did so in the interest of transparency because she was interviewing his clients," the NBC News executive told Insider. "It had no impact on the interviews she conducted or on our reporting. The fairness of each interview speaks for itself."

'How difficult would it be to find someone else to do the interview?'

Erik Wemple, a media critic at The Washington Post, told Insider that Guthrie had a "highly understandable" ethics problem on her hands. She and Feldman each have independent careers.

But anything that appears to affect household finances in the way Guthrie's interviews seemed to do is "a very significant conflict of interest," he said, adding that it's exacerbated because, according to Bredehoft, Heard plans to appeal the jury verdict against her.

"There is a financial stake," Wemple said. "And that is the most fair and narrow and unpuncturable conflict of interest, if it affects your family finances in some way."

NBC, which airs the "Today" show, has so far aired two 10-minute segments from Guthrie's interview with Heard. It plans to air more footage in an hourlong special on "Dateline" on Friday.

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Johnny Depp in between his lawyers Camille Vasquez and Ben Chew after a break in the defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard on May 18.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Pool

Wemple said the fact Guthrie disclosed her husband's work for Depp's legal team, of the law firm Brown Rudnick LLP, indicated NBC recognized on some level that at least that interview was problematic.

"She is interviewing lawyers who presumably benefited from her husband's consulting. That is really close," Wemple said. "The more I think about it, the more it seems a little nuts."

Ethics experts told Insider the best solution for NBC News would be to simply have someone else conduct the interviews.

"How difficult would it be to find someone else to do the interview who didn't have any kind of potential entanglement to prominently disclose?" Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute who is the author of a textbook on multimedia journalism, told Insider.

A representative for Heard declined to comment and referred questions to NBC News.

Heard knew about Guthrie's husband's work before the interview

Two sources familiar with the situation told Insider that Heard and her attorneys were aware that Feldman had worked for Depp's lawyers before sitting down for the interviews with Guthrie.

Feldman's firm FSG Global became involved "very late in the game," a representative for Depp told Insider.

The NBC News executive told Insider that Heard "chose to be interviewed" by Guthrie anyway.

"Before they agreed to the interviews, all parties, including Heard's team and Depp's team, were advised of Savannah's husband's work, which was for the firm, not the firm's client," the executive told Insider. "With full knowledge and understanding, each chose to be interviewed by Savannah, not another journalist or network."

But even if Heard was aware of the potential conflicts and wanted Guthrie to interview her anyway, ethics experts told Insider Guthrie still shouldn't have done it.

"Networks' standards-and-practices guides, as far as I know, don't have a provision that says, 'Well, if the interviewees accept egregious conflict of interest, we can proceed,'" Wemple said. "That's not part of the deal."

"You cannot have a situation where you say, 'I walk free from this ethical obligation because the person I'm interviewing has agreed with it,'" Wemple said. "That's just not how it works, and it's not how it should work."

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Heard with her attorney Elaine Bredehoft in court on May 27.Steve Helber/Pool via REUTERS

Guthrie asked several questions that duplicated what Heard was asked about at the trial, such as about her failure to donate the $7 million from her divorce settlement from Depp even though she said she had already given the money away. Public-relationship experts told Insider that Heard came off poorly in the segments aired so far.

It's impossible to judge the interview on its own merits, Wemple told Insider, because there's no way to run a "control experiment" to know what it might have looked like if Guthrie weren't married to Feldman.

Guthrie's husband's work may have given her biases "whether she's aware of them or not," said Elizabeth Spiers, a media consultant and professor at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

"We don't know what that interview would've looked like if somebody else had done it," Spiers said.

Wemple said NBC News should have never allowed Guthrie to be in a position in which she would even make those calculations.

"We're all capable of sometimes, neutralizing our biases and our conflicts, but it's not a good policy where you're putting the person in a position where she has to recalibrate herself through this interview," he said. "It's much better if she brings someone who has none of these conflicts and they just go nuts, and they do the journalism."

Chris Daly, a journalism professor at Boston University, told Insider that Guthrie's interview is "a black mark on the whole field" of journalism, which is premised on credibility and trust.

"As a journalism instructor, it's so demoralizing to see people behave this way," Daly said. "The audience is always watching, but my students are also watching, and we're trying to raise the standards and give them the highest possible ethical threshold to meet."

"And then comes along a famous, well-paid journalist la-di-da trampling the rules," he continued. "Now we have to start all over again."

Read the original article on Insider