Stephen Fuller, professor of public policy and regional development at George Mason University in Virginia, is frequently quoted by The Washington Post as an expert on the economy of the Washington region. But Fuller said he’ll think twice about picking up the phone the next time the newspaper's reporters call him.
Fuller’s relationship with tech giant Amazon was called into question by the paper's reporters in an Aug. 9 article after they obtained emails through a Freedom of Information request showing correspondence between Fuller and an Amazon representative. Fuller wrote a positive opinion piece about the company’s move into Northern Virginia at the suggestion of the Amazon official, who wanted to boost public support for the project ahead of a vote by the Arlington County Board to approve a $23 million incentive package.
The op-ed, published in the Washington Business Journal in March after the vote had taken place, was not paid for by Amazon, nor did Amazon play any role in writing it, said Fuller. But emails shared by Fuller show that Jill Shatzen Kerr, Amazon’s policy communications manager, did suggest that Fuller write the article after meeting him at a university event. And Fuller let Kerr review and suggest changes to the article before it went to print. Fuller noted that he did not agree with, or make, any of the suggested changes.
Fuller says he did nothing wrong or unethical. It never occurred to him that he should share where the idea for his op-ed came from.
“If they had asked me, I would, of course, have been forthcoming,” he said.
Fuller said he showed the text of his op-ed to Kerr “as a courtesy” and to check whether the company disputed any of the data he cited.
The incident has nonetheless raised questions among academics and ethicists about whether Fuller was acting independently and transparently when he published the op-ed, according to The Washington Post. Michelle Mason Bizri, a University of Minnesota professor of philosophy, was quoted as saying that Fuller had “invited questioning of his credibility” by failing to disclose that Amazon solicited and reviewed the op-ed.
But Fuller’s colleagues at George Mason are standing by him. S. David Wu, provost and executive vice president of the university, said George Mason encourages faculty to speak publicly on matters of local, national and global importance and noted that Fuller has “consistently made the observation that the Washington region is in great need to diversify its economic base, and the arrival of Amazon HQ2 fits this narrative well.”
He described Fuller as “a prominent and respected voice on regional economic development” and added that “in the handling of this op-ed for the Washington Business Journal, we have no evidence that he violated any stated policy of the university.”
Robert Deitz, a professor of public policy at George Mason, also doesn't see a problem with what Fuller did.
“People tend to use the phrase 'conflict of interest' in a rather loose way. But one must always ask, what is the conflict?” Deitz said. “I don’t see an issue here. As I understand the facts -- and facts are always crucial for conflict analyses -- Professor Fuller was asked to do an op-ed on the impact of Amazon’s move to Northern Virginia. He did so. Amazon had no editorial control over the piece. Where is the conflict?”
Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor in human development and family at George Mason and president of the local advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said she would like to see more discussion among faculty about transparency and disclosure when communicating their research and opinions to the public. She contends that whether or not there is a conflict of interest, the perception that one exists can be damaging to the reputation of an academic and their institution and should be avoided.
“We don’t have clear guidelines on these issues,” she said.
Vandana Sinha, editor in chief of the Washington Business Journal, wrote a column on Aug. 9 addressing the controversy over the op-ed.
“By definition, these op-eds are meant to offer a biased take on a topic, so our requirements for them are different than with news stories. In fact, we purposefully ask business leaders to choose a distinct side, that the stronger the opinion, the stronger the piece,” wrote Sinha.
“But in this case, Amazon’s involvement, however limited, should have been disclosed to the WBJ,” she said. “Fuller has a large following and his byline suggests an independent economic assessment of HQ2’s arrival. Readers should have known the corporate giant got to suggest the piece and peek at it before publication. And for anyone proposing an opinion piece to us in the future, don’t be surprised when I now ask if any third party spurred, influenced or funded the submission.”
Paul Fletcher, publisher and editor in chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly and former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said this case would “make a great hypothetical for a media ethics class.”
“Should Fuller have told the WBJ he consulted with Amazon on the article? Probably. I’ve looked through the SPJ Code of Ethics, and it’s hard to find any particular tenet of the code that he breached, but he wasn’t acting as a journalist or reporter. He was writing an opinion column, one that the WBJ accepted and published.”
“Transparency is important, even for an unpaid opinion piece. Providing as much information about an op-ed as possible lets the members of the audience weigh its value on their own terms,” said Fletcher.
Teresa Valerio Parrot, principal of TVP Communications, said it is not unusual for faculty to be asked to write op-eds by nonprofits or organizations looking to “advance an issue off the opinions and political capital of the author.” But in her experience, these op-eds were never reviewed or edited by the organization that requested them.
“It is increasingly common for outlets to ask authors directly about conflicts of interest and include a line in their contracts that asks about potential disclosures,” said Parrot. “If faculty don’t know how to disclose, the outlets provide ways for them to do so.”
Fuller, who is the director of the Stephen S. Fuller Institute for Research on the Washington Region's Economic Future, said he was disappointed that the Washington Post reporters "found the story worthy of all this ink." He said reporters there had been looking into the finances of his institute for months but have not found anything worth reporting.
"It's like they're bending over backward to find something negative to report on Amazon," he said.
The Fuller Institute published a report in November on the economic and fiscal impact of Amazon picking Northern Virginia as the location of its second headquarters. The report was funded and commissioned by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the agency that led the state's Amazon bid.
Fuller said that he had no relationship with Amazon prior to meeting Kerr at the event and exchanging a few emails with her. He said he has a responsibility as a researcher not be corrupted and to share his findings with the public.
"I hope others won't be discouraged from sharing their opinions because of this," he said.