The most recent controversy to embroil media bigwigs has been the proposed but now cancelled salons planned by Washington Post publisher Katherine Weymouth. The problem was not with the notion of salons themselves—journalists, like anyone else, are allowed to participate in any discussions they please. Rather it was in the fact that the Post was quite clearly selling access to its journalists—and to invited lawmakers looking to curry favor with the newspaper in what it promised would be an “intimate and informal dinner and discussion ‘entirely’ off the record” exclusively for "those powerful few."
The discussions were to be hosted by Weymouth in her home with Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor. A memo describing the events explained that “The Washington Post is the media brand that sits at the intersection of business and policy,” and promised access to "leading policymakers,” together with “top Washington Post editors, columnists, and journalists.”
When the story originally broke in Politico—the Post’s own media ethics cop Howard Kurtz being caught flatfooted—journalists across the country had a fine time mocking the inexperienced Weymouth who, apparently desperate for revenue, did not know the first thing about the fundamentals of journalistic integrity. In fact her apology published in Sunday’s paper demonstrated that if she did not then, she does now, and the Post initiated an internal review of its “salon policy.”
But the practice is apparently a much more common one than was previously understood. The Atlantic Monthly has been holding a similar series of profit-making “pay-for-play” dinners for six years, each sponsored by a different corporation, in which journalists and policymakers are brought together for off-the-record conversations in a similar friendly, “nonconfrontational” atmosphere. Atlantic Monthly Media Chairman David Bradley explained that such meetings were necessary because, “the economic foundation beneath journalism is falling away … The imperative, as I see it, is to rebuild journalism on different financial pillars. One of them, and not inconsequential to us, is events—of all types.” (In fact, the crisis affecting the news business and the newspaper business in particular has nothing to do with The Atlantic, which has always been a money-losing “vanity” publication, like Harper’s, The New Republic, The Nation, The Weekly Standard, National Review, etc. Each of these publications undertakes ideas to reduce their deficits, and each can be criticized for doing so. But let’s keep our eye on the ball here.)
And for decades, the dynamic duo of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak held a similar series of high-priced conferences at which they dragooned their sources for off-the-record meetings at which other journalists were not invited even when say, the secretary of the treasury was announcing important policy shifts in U.S. economic policy.
Perhaps the worst that can be said of these salons is that the Washington Post company and the Atlantic Monthly have dragged themselves down to the level of the infamous hucksters nicknamed “Errors and Nofacts.” But the problem of journalistic conflicts of interest is only going to get worse as traditional funding sources dry up. Many of these conflicts, particularly those involving friendship and typical socializing-schmoozing, may be unfortunate but are ultimately unavoidable in a town like Washington where journalistic, political, and corporate elites are so cozy and incestuous with one another.
Given the power that the perceptions created by powerful media personalities and institutions enjoy over the profits of so many industries, it is only natural for them to want to invest some of their public relations dollars in shaping their views. After all, that is what their lobbying budgets are all about. By charging tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to get access to public officials, these institutions are literally using the privileges accorded them by the First Amendment to line their own pockets by simply acting as a middle man between the lobbyist and the lobbied—however high-minded the discussion may be. As James Fallows once explained, these events are especially valuable to industries because of the “subtle immunization” that occurs. It’s not simply that stories are reported in a friendlier and more sympathetic manner after friendships are struck and money changes hands. It’s also that certain stories are never reported at all.
The second level of corruption comes when the journalist sits down to write the story. Take the example of the Post’s Howard Kurtz, who, as the paper’s media critic, is supposed to be “holier than the pope” when it comes to conflict of interest. Kurtz is paid significant amounts of cash by the very people he is ostensibly covering and over and over, he refuses to disclose these ties.
When I wrote to the Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, about the most recent incident of this—when in a Post chat Kurtz was identified only as a Post staff writer and columnist, rather than a paid employee of the network he was defending (something he preferred not to reveal)—I inquired as to what the Post’s conflict-of-interest policy might be, as it apparently did not preclude taking cash payments from your subjects. (As Charles Kaiser has repeatedly wondered, would the Post allow a reporter covering the auto industry to pocket a regular check from General Motors?) Alexander answered:
It does. Unfortunately, The Post will not publicly disclose them—something I find unwise and short sighted. Readers such as Alterman are entitled to know the standards to which The Post holds itself. In a column several months ago, I wrote: “The Post keeps its journalistic policies largely hidden, making it virtually impossible for readers to know the paper’s ethical and journalistic standards. The public should be able to easily access them online. It’s not merely right but also smart to be transparent at a time when The Post is trying to hold on to readers.”
Kurtz’s ongoing relationship with CNN—which obviously infects not only his reporting on CNN for the Post, but also his reporting on the Post for CNN, as well as his reporting on CNN’s competitors Fox, Fox Business, MSNBC, CNBC, etc. for the Post, and The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, etc, for CNN—is perhaps the most egregious ongoing conflict in all elite journalism. But it is hardly the only one.
We recently heard stories of Tom Friedman being forced to return a $75,000 speaking fee over one such revealed conflict; again, the Times proved extremely reluctant to spell out just what its policies were with regard to cash payments to its employees by outside sources. James Fallows and I have long followed the adventures of ABC’s buckraking Cokie Roberts here, who, together with her husband Steve Roberts, accepts massive payments for speeches from industries with powerful stakes in issues she alleges to discuss without prejudice on ABC’s “This Week” and elsewhere.
The practice is generally accepted in Washington as somehow consistent with journalistic independence and has literally been going on for decades. A recent innovation—one that is unfortunately married to the phenomenon of tens of thousands of journalists being downsized in recent years—is the creation of a firm like Abrams Research that promises that “media insiders” will “offer insights, data, and personnel never before available to businesses for image enhancement, branding, investigative reporting and the execution of the best media plan.”
Unfortunately, the blogosphere—which is a corrective in many cases and is responsible for breaking the case of the Post salons—is actually making this problem far worse. Public relations firms across America are paying bloggers to assume a false identity to write phony posts to support their clients and products. Businesses are also making a point of “seeding” independent bloggers with free swag, in hopes of creating the illusion of unfiltered grassroots enthusiasm.
BusinessWeek reported that blogger Jessica Smith of the blog Jessica Knows received a free Ford (F) Flex for a year in April, including a gas card. In politics, the practice is the same. For instance, during the 2008 election season Patrick Hynes consistently praised John McCain and attacked Mitt Romney without once explaining that he was employed by McCain’s political action committee.
Old-fashioned media institutions like the Post can at least be embarrassed into adhering to their own high-minded principles—at least when their violations of these principles are exposed. But in the blogosphere, we are all at the mercy of honesty of the individual blogger—or someone who happens to have a similar interest in exposing a competitor’s conflict.
There is an obvious point to be made about these conflicts, but unfortunately it’s one we rarely hear. The fact is, they run in only one direction: toward the interests of the rich and powerful. The funding of journalistic conflicts of interest is an expensive business. The only people who can afford to corrupt journalists on their own behalf are the wealthy. Poor people do not sponsor “salons” or speeches. They do not throw around hundreds of thousands of dollars for ‘intimate, nonconfrontational’ conversations in lovely settings with great food and plenty to drink. It is no secret that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in this world, but honest journalism is the one place where that is not supposed to happen. It’s just one more example of how, as our newspapers disappear and the quality of our media declines accordingly, so too, does the quality of our democracy.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation.