Spencer Cox’s podcast partnership with a local news outlet blurs the line between news and campaigning

Podcast Studio 01

Online media is giving politicians new avenues to get their message out to voters, offering a path around the traditional media. However, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox appears to have forged a close relationship with a local news station that could end up benefiting his 2020 bid for governor.

KSL.com has been hosting the popular Cox & Friends podcast since last year when they approached Cox about including the program on their platform. The program was also broadcast on KSL radio Sunday afternoons, but KSL says the show was removed from the on-air lineup before Cox officially announced he would run in 2020. As of Wednesday morning, Cox & Friends was still listed as occupying a Sunday afternoon slot on the station’s website, but was removed by Wednesday evening.

KSL is still distributing and promoting Cox’s podcast even though he’s a declared candidate for governor in 2020. Cox is unabashedly discussing his campaign on the podcast. For instance, Cox spent the first segment of his June 11 episode recapping his campaign kickoff efforts.

KSL says they don’t see a conflict between Cox hosting a podcast on their platform and his bid for the state’s top job next year.

“Cox and Friends is not a news product,” says Sheryl Worsley, Director of Audience Development for Bonneville Salt Lake, the parent company for KSL. “It is not produced by KSL NewsRadio or KSL TV news. We have a separate digital/podcast division within Bonneville Salt Lake.”

Worsley also notes that the content of Cox’s show is not influenced or controlled by Bonneville’s podcast division.

Technically, that may be true. But the KSL NewsRadio logo is displayed prominently on the webpage for Cox’s podcast, blurring the line between the company’s news division and Cox’s podcast.

“That does present a bit of a pause,” says Jean Norman, Assistant professor of communications at Weber State University. “Having this affiliation with a major media organization is a big advantage for him. It may not be an endorsement of his candidacy, but it lives on their website right under the logo.”

“KSL does not endorse candidates on any platform. Spencer Cox is the current Lt. Governor, and as such is a public figure and office holder, which warrants public access” said Worsley.

Cox’s campaign pushed back against any suggestion that their podcast partnership with KSL is untoward or improper.

“Nothing in Utah law precludes candidates from podcasting and Lt. Governor Cox and his friends are excited to continue producing weekly content that reaches all Utahns,” said campaign manager Austin Cox.

Both KSL and Cox say they do not intend to discontinue Cox’s podcast while he’s running for governor. That decision runs counter to previous decisions made by KSL when they were confronted with a host running for office. In 2011 Charlie Luke hosted a weekend talk show on KSL radio. That show was immediately discontinued when Luke was mentioned as a possible candidate for Salt Lake City Council in a newspaper article because station officials wanted to avoid any appearance of a conflict.

In 2005 KSL told former radio talk show host Doug Wright he would have to step away from his long-running show if he decided to run against then U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. Matheson’s campaign made a number of public complaints about Wright’s possible candidacy while hosting his popular morning talk show, stopping only when Wright declared he would not run.

The Cox podcast situation is not unique in Utah media. Until recently, Salt Lake Mayoral candidate Jim Dabakis was a co-host of KUTV Channel 2’s weekly “Take Two” political podcast along with former House Speaker Greg Hughes. KUTV had planned to keep Dabakis on the podcast even after he officially filed for the mayoral contest. KUTV newsroom employees told UtahPolicy.com they were extremely uncomfortable having someone they would have to cover as a featured personality on a station-produced podcast. After repeated questions from UtahPolicy.com about Dabakis’ relationship with KUTV, officials announced he would depart the podcast to focus on his mayoral campaign. UtahPolicy.com is told Hughes, who is also expected to launch a gubernatorial bid later this summer, will stay on the program until he officially files as a signature-gathering candidate in January.

There are two key differences between the KUTV podcast and Cox’s program is “Take Two” is hosted by Heidi Hatch, one of the television stations news anchors. No news personalities are involved in the production of Cox & Friends. However, Hughes is barred from commenting about the 2020 governor’s race, while Cox has openly discussed his campaign.

There are also questions about the closeness of Cox’s relationship with Bonneville and KSL. Both Cox and his chief of Staff, Kirsten Rappleye have been given security badges allowing them access to the KSL studios that are normally off-limits to the public. Worsley said this is a common arrangement they have with non-employees who produce podcast content for the company.

“We do not discuss security, but I can tell you several contributors from multiple podcasts have badge access to the building,” she said.

Several Republicans involved in Utah state government say Cox and Rappleye possessing a security badge is troubling.

“It’s definitely weird. I can say I’ve never seen anything like it,” said one prominent state employee who was granted anonymity as they feared reprisal for commenting on Cox’s outside project.

Rappleye told UtahPolicy.com earlier this year she works on the podcast in her spare time, and it does not interfere with her official duties in the Lt. Governor’s office.

Clearly, the issue of candidates producing online content either in partnership or in conjunction with a news outlet is one of those new media grey areas that lack a concrete answer about whether it’s proper. Norman says news organizations need to be very careful as they tread into these uncharted waters, because news consumers may not be able to make the distinction between KSL’s news product and a separate division within the company devoted to podcast production.

“The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics clearly says journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. KSL is a big newsroom, and I doubt this affiliation will compromise their ability to cover Cox fairly,” said Norman.

Worsley did not respond to a question whether KSL would afford one of Cox’s opponents, or any other political candidate, a similar opportunity to produce a podcast promoting their campaign.

Adrielle Herring, campaign manager for Jeff Burningham who is currently raising money and touring the state ahead of a likely gubernatorial campaign next year, says she hopes that KSL’s partnership with Cox does not color how they cover the 2020 election.

“I trust the media will treat this like the competitive race it is. Voters deserve that,” she said. “It would be nice if Spencer would do the right thing and step away from the podcast.”

Another ambiguity presented by the affiliation between Cox and KSL is whether the use of company resources in the production of the show constitutes an in-kind donation to Cox’s campaign. KSL’s studios are used in the production of the podcast and paid KSL staffers assist in that production. Utah code defines an in-kind donation as “anything of value, other than money, that is accepted by or coordinated with” a political entity.

Cox’s campaign says KSL’s involvement cannot be considered a donation to the campaign since KSL retains the marketing rights to the podcast, which allows them to sell advertising in order to recoup their costs. But, Worsley tells UtahPolicy.com the podcast is not generating any revenue for the company.

Justin Lee with the Utah Elections Office, which Cox oversees in his official capacity as Lt. Governor, tells UtahPolicy.com he agrees with that interpretation, so he does not see it as an in-kind donation.

On Wednesday, Cox’s office announced he would recuse himself from overseeing election disputes involving his campaign or the 2020 gubernatorial race. Those complaints will now be handled by a neutral third party.

Podcasts are a prime example of how regulations are struggling to keep up with a changing media landscape. The Federal Communications Commission mandates that television and radio stations give equal time to the opponents of political candidates who appear on the air if they ask for it, but those regulations do not apply to online media like podcasts. Had KSL not pulled the Cox & Friends podcast from their on-air schedule when he became an official candidate for governor, they would have been obligated to provide equal time, at no cost, to any of Cox’s opponents who asked for it. That’s the reason that KTVX (Channel 4) dropped Jim Dabakis’ Sunday morning television program when he briefly declared himself to be a candidate for Salt Lake City Mayor in 2015 even though Dabakis was paying the station for airtime to broadcast his program. When former broadcaster Phil Riesen ran for the Utah Legislature in 2005 he voiced television commercials for a local furniture company. Those ads were yanked from the air as local TV stations worried they would be open to equal time requests from Riesen’s opponent.

KSL would not provide statistics showing how many downloads Cox’s podcast gets during a given week.

(Editor’s note: Managing Editor Bryan Schott briefly hosted a podcast for KSL in 2017, but discontinued the program after a few months.)