The perils of a news media paid for by outsiders

Week of Jan. 18, 2010

If you run a news business staying fairly clean used to be fairly easy. What you published was produced, by and large, by journalists who worked exclusively for you. You didn’t accept material from outsiders apart from freelancers you knew or bona fide news agencies. PR firms and advocacy groups routinely offered you articles, but no self-respecting news outlet would simply publish them, even if the authors wore the sackcloth of public-spirited philanthropy.

No longer. Today’s media, keen to save money, are deepening their reliance on part-time contributors, mainly because freelancers come cheap. And established media are keen to “partner” with a new breed of stand-alone journalism initiatives affiliated with high-minded foundations bankrolled by retired big-shots who want to be remembered for something other than the industries they pillaged.

So you have more and more journalism produced by people who are financially dependent on shadowy offstage entities. The 300 bucks that freelancer gets for a story that took her a week obviously doesn’t pay her bills; so who does? The nonprofit that funds those in-depth stories on health reform—its backers really have no agenda?

The result is a potent new challenge to traditional safeguards against conflict of interest, which, it’s becoming increasingly obvious, are either too weak, too harsh, or flat-out misdirected. Consider two cases in the past month.

The New York Times halted a monthly column on corporate innovation written by a Harvard Business School faculty member because her December column was based in part on a visit to a 3M Company facility that 3M paid for.

Times policy prohibits contributors from accepting anything of value from the subjects of coverage. The paper sacked two other freelancers too, one of them, curiously, for taking a corporate-paid trip to Jamaica for a project unrelated to his Times work.

On the lenient end of the spectrum, The Washington Post stirred up a flap on New Year’s Eve by publishing an article produced by something called The Fiscal Times. That’s a startup funded by Peter G. Peterson, a billionaire investment banker, former chairman of Lehman, onetime U.S. commerce secretary under President Nixon.

The article described, approvingly, efforts to create a bipartisan deficit-reduction commission, a cause reputedly dear to Peterson’s heart. It didn’t mention, according to a subsequent protest letter, fierce opposition to the proposal from some 40 national organizations that fear the commission would gut Social Security and Medicare.

Now, I don’t know whether the Harvard professor was corrupted by an all-expense-paid trip to St. Paul, Minn., or whether what the Post claimed was its “complete editorial control” was enough to neutralize Fiscal Times’ policy bias, if any.

But that’s exactly the problem with conflict of interest: You never know. The best you can do is to identify offstage influences—invisible constituencies—that seem reasonably likely to have a discernible effect on the journalism that’s produced.

And then? That depends. At a minimum, the outside ties should be severed. With freelancers, the publisher must pick up the full costs of the work. That’s fundamental. If a column required an $820 trip to Minnesota, The Times pays the $820. Otherwise, strictly speaking, it isn’t the Harvard professor who’s being subsidized by 3M, it’s The New York Times. (And letting her pay with university funds is no answer either; then the Times would be beholden to Harvard—an institution it has ample occasion to cover.)

If The Times won’t pay, then it can’t play. It must accept an unpalatable conclusion: There are certain kinds of work it can no longer publish ethically. (Disclosing the outside support, as some urge, isn’t sufficient. If you read an article and at the bottom learn that its costs were borne by the company being covered, you wouldn’t feel enlightened, you’d feel hoodwinked. And you’d be right.)

The upsurge in so-called nonprofit journalism is just as problematic. Publishers simply cannot know what kind of influence the charismatic plutocrats or their purpose-built foundations exert on the operations they fund, whether Fiscal Times, Pro Publica, Politico, or Kaiser Health News.

It seems unreasonable to think that these backers—who unlike traditional advertisers are funding journalism explicitly to pursue civic, not commercial, goals—are then going to be divinely indifferent to the actual coverage that their money engenders.

Regardless, what’s undeniable is that the cumulative influence of this burgeoning source of journalism is to ensure that the topics these nonprofits favor get a first-class ride aboard the few channels capable of commanding public attention in a significant way. As the saying goes, even if they’re not telling you what to think, they’re telling you what to think about. And that’s power.

As for other coverage areas, the ones without outside sugar daddies? They take a number and wait their turn.

These are big problems. We’re looking at a slow-motion transformation of the function of the U.S. news media from chronicling and refereeing the collision of special interests to serving as their storefront. For a business that depends on public trust, it’s a deeply troubling direction.

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