July 11, 2009

No Side Businesses for Journalism

A journalist’s first loyalty is to the public. That’s the only way to meet the ethical demands of the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Andrew Alexander, ombudsman for the Washington Post, examines the paper’s recent influence-peddling scandal — an “ethical lapse of monumental proportions.”

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Post’s own code could not be clearer on the topics of independence and influence. So how could this have happened?

There are many answers to that question, the saddest of which was quoted by Alexander. Here’s Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli commenting on why newsroom managers apparently let this mess progress without a peep:

“When the publisher and the editor both appear to have signed off on an idea, I think it is perhaps true that a certain complacency sets in,” he said. For that reason, lower-level managers might be less inclined “to stand up and say: ‘Whoa, this is a bad idea.’ “

But I contend that Brauchli is wrong about the source of the editorial managers’ complacency, or, rather, he is only partly right. And this brings me to what I think is one of the most important questions not asked/answered by Alexander:

Why is the Post in the conferences and events business in the first place?

OK, there’s an easy “answer”: To make money because the newspaper is losing money.

You’ll find that in Alexander’s column also with the general idea, written between the lines, that it’s not a big deal because other news organizations do it, too.

But such side businesses set news organizations up for exactly this kind of ethical lapse of monumental proportions. Blaming individuals is easy. I think we must also blame the system created by corporate power. Put people into untenable situations and they will have ethical lapses of monumental proportions. The corporation cares about profit. Journalism cares about serving the public (or used to anyway). These two things don’t mesh well. Yes, I know. That’s big news.

News organizations ought not run side businesses. The temptation to engage in ethical lapses of monumental proportions is just too great. Therefore, news organizations that run such businesses are being unethical. Journalists who fail to speak up are being unethical. And those news organizations that have yet to engage in ethical lapses of monumental proportions are merely lucky.

5 Responses

  1. Here’s the thing that struck me about that issue–well, there are a bunch of things, actually. First is that clearly it is part of the Tradition of Journalism (or at least the Tradition of the Big Newspaper Men) to have what you might call salons, to provide places for people to meet and discuss Important Issues. Some of those are very public (such as campaign debates or topic round tables) and some are dinner parties and bar lunches and so on, scintillating conversation, etc, etc. This proposal seemed like an attempt to monetize this tradition, which is clearly a monumental ethical problem, but a separate one from the tradition itself.

    So–a question. Suppose that the Post‘s top people hosted such a series of salons, inviting top policymakers and interested top industry people. Suppose that they underwrote these events themselves. Suppose that they reported on them. Suppose even that they reported on them within a doctrine of verification. Suppose they freaking filmed the events and put ’em on the web. Is there still an ethical problem in that case? Is it of non-monumental proportions?

    And, by the way, I have to ask–if last year, you were to present my suggestion to your students, and then present the actual proposal at the Post (with the industry underwriting and the clear implication of either nonexistant or favorable coverage), which would your students have considered the more far-fetched hypothetical?

    Thanks,
    -V.

  2. acline 

    V.– The scenario you describe has been done and would be OK. The ethical lapse here was selling influence behind closed doors.

    And good question for my students 🙂 I would hope they’d hoot with laughter than no one could be so dumb as to NOT see what the Post did as unethical. It so clearly is.

  3. Erik Sherman 

    Although I was aghast at hearing of the salon concept, I find your analysis, view, and suggested answer overly simplistic and completely unrealistic:

    1) If there is not enough money to keep the business running, there will be no news organization, period. So what is the news company supposed to do if the only enterprise that you would allow constantly loses money. So what do you suggest that they do? Simply close things down out of principle?

    2) A corporation actually has ethical and significant legal obligations toward its shareholders, particularly when publicly-held. To ignore their interest in profit – which, by the way, is exactly what made the papers possible in the first place – would be to thumb their nose at those obligations. Why would that be any less ethical?

    3) It is easy to be a purist when you do not bear the responsibility of keeping a business running and many people employed. What do you think the managers of news companies should do instead of running “side businesses?”

    4) You talk of blaming “the system created by corporate power.” Blame is easy; finding a solution is difficult because it requires work. Exactly what do you see as the solution? State-supported media? I’d think that would be an ethical problem in and of itself. Non-profit media? Look at PBS and you’ll see that it isn’t an easy solution, and if you can’t get people to pay for the news coverage, what makes you think that you can get them to donate money?

    It’s easy to be a purist and frown disapprovingly when you can do so safely from the sidelines. So what solutions do you propose that might actually work in the real world?

  4. acline 

    Erik… That’s the trouble with black-and-white issues such as this one: The stark assessment of unethical behavior just stings. If it seems simplistic, well, it is. What the Post did was simply wrong. That journalism shouldn’t be tied to other, conflicting business interests is simply so given the clear language of the various codes of ethics.

    I believe the age of corporate journalism has come to an end. I believe that’s a good thing.

    You’re right about the corporate profit obligation, which is EXACTLY why journalism ought not be tied to its imperatives.

    Why assume I would offer a state solution?

    I’ve offered plenty of solutions over the seven years I’ve been writing this weblog. Be that as it may, I do not think one must offer solutions in order to justify criticism.

  5. Steve Sullam 

    To me this discussion is way way way too academic in view the pending proposals for health care reform before national legislative bodies. I miss a sense of out rage that the publisher of the Washington Post is willing to sell out and to offer lobbyists supplimental help for their efforts already going on in Congress.

    I quote from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/keeping-the-spotlight-on_b_228923.html 7-9-2009
    “And yet the lobbyists remain as pervasive — and even more powerful — than ever. Just take a look at what’s happening with health care. The Washington Post and TPM [via Open Secrets] this week offered up some details of the unprecedented lobbying effort aimed at undermining health care reform: $1 million a day spent on lobbying; 350 former Members of Congress and Congressional staffers hired to influence the debate, including half a dozen former staffers of Sen. Max Baucus, who remains a human roadblock to real health care reform; the hiring of bipartisan big gun arm-twisters like Bob Dole, Tom Daschle, Dick Armey, and Dick Gephardt to try to sway their former colleagues.

    Stories like that tend to pop up, make our blood pressure rise, then quickly drop off the media radar until the next outrage grabs our attention. But the sporadic — and often scattered — nature of the media’s coverage of the DC quid pro dough game is one of the reasons the special interests have been able to maintain their power. When another example of the lobbyists’ power to undermine real reform hits the headlines, they just lay low until the public’s focus moves on to the next hot story, and then get back to business as usual”