Faltering revenue streams, of course, are what lead so many publications to embrace live events as a way to extend their brand and underwrite their reporting. The closed-door sessions that have recently captured attention are far outnumbered by on-the-record events that convene journalists and their subjects with support from a sponsor or a paying audience. A far-from-comprehensive list: National Journal hosts policy breakfasts, CQ offers both forums and summits, The Atlantic is a co-presenter of the Aspen Ideas Festival, and The New Yorker hosts its own annual festival.
Not all the ethical questions in play here go away just because an event is on the record. There’s the obvious concern about a publication becoming indebted to a sponsor, or razing the wall between editorial and advertising.. But beyond that, if a key government official or business leader, by agreeing to participate, helps a publication attract sponsors or paying customers, does he or she expect–-or get–-the benefit of the doubt in future coverage? And are news organizations, in some of these cases, selling their access to influential decision-makers? (CQ, whose publisher, Keith White, declined to comment because the company is in the midst of a sale, touts its summits as a way “to seamlessly integrate federal, state and local policy objectives in a single, ‘turn-key’ program” on its Web site.)
At the same time, these events may have value in and of themselves, to say nothing of the role they play in underwriting reporting. And it’s not clear that many of the ethical challenges they pose are different in kind from those that affect any news organization as it covers a major advertiser (or, in the case of non-profits, a donor). All of journalism’s funding mechanisms are ethically fraught, and as publications become less and less confident about their ability to attract revenue, those tensions inevitably increase.
Any time money changes hands on a matter of public or political interest, we get suspicious—no less so when the media is involved then when a politician is the recipient. But transparency is the best way to address and soothe these suspicions. Readers deserve to know where the salon money comes from, and they deserve a full accounting of what sponsors are receiving in exchange for their support. As one commenter wrote at The Atlantic’s Web site, “I still like to know who is buying me my news and editorials, since I am apparently not paying for it myself.” “Trust us” isn’t good enough for the government. It shouldn’t be good enough for journalists, either.