The Felix Thing

Concerns from a friend about our new blogger

We’ve gotten a couple of private notes expressing concern about our naming Felix Salmon as our new Peterson Fellow to blog about economics coverage, including one from a longtime friend who warns:

This is a mistake. You are undermining your credibility.

The issue is that Felix works for Reuters.

I believe organizations whose main purpose (is) critiquing others need to hold themselves to higher standards. I understand that you wouldn’t have him critique Reuters. But presumably you would allow him to critique Bloomberg. Or Dow Jones Newswires. Or other economic blogs—his direct competitor. (Will he be allowed to do that?)

It’d be like hiring Jamie Dimon to critique other financial institutions, and saying it’s okay because he wouldn’t be critiquing JPMorgan Chase.

Our correspondent makes a fair point, well-intended. We understand we’re CJR, and our independence is a core asset. We’re the keeper of standards and forever hurling tablets at whatever Golden Hamster journalists happen to be dancing around. While conflicts of interest haven’t been a major focus for us, I’m sure we’ve called out others on such matters. And, it’s true, we do sometimes speak in a somewhat, um, stentorian manner (ner, ner, ner, ner).

But a couple of things: it’s hardly news that we’re living in a new day in journalism, a time of partnerships and experiments; and, no, not all of them are ideal. But then journalism itself has lots of conflicts and always has. The advertising model is full of them; the philanthropic model, which is what we are, mostly, has even more. We’ve gotten money from everyone from The Nation Institute to Goldman Sachs to, well, the Peterson Foundation, which is not exactly the most neutral party on fiscal and entitlement questions, is it?

Indeed, a journalism organization having a “Peterson Fellow” is already problematic, something our last Peterson Fellow, Holly Yeager, wrestled with, at length, here.

But just so you know: the fellowship isn’t about covering the “deficit.” It’s about covering Washington economic policymaking generally—the biggest domestic story we know—and to encourage the press to go deep on long-term structural issues. Here’s how we put it last January:

Funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the Peterson Fellowship was created to encourage the business and Washington media to take the long view. Among other things, we’ll encourage the press to explore the national debate over the federal budget, the national debt, entitlement programs, and taxes; the impact of Washington economic policy on Wall Street and financial markets; the still-unknown public exposure to various financial stabilization measures and its impact on future economic policy choices; the fallout and long-term consequences of financial-sector reforms; the social consequences of the crisis, including wealth transfers resulting from foreclosures and other forms of economic dislocation; and the impact of the crisis on social mobility, income distribution, poverty, and personal savings and home-ownership rates.

So that’s the first conflict; you disclose and manage it the best you can. So far, I have to say, so good. It hasn’t been an issue.

As for the Reuters conflict, there is one, since Reuters is letting Felix work part-time for us. But, it’s also worth noting that we have no relationship with Reuters. We like them just fine, but we have no problem criticizing them. If Felix goes away, he goes away.

I’ll let Felix answer the rest for himself:

Now there’s a second conflict piled onto the first: the fact that I’m employed by Reuters gives me a natural dog in the competitive fight that is financial journalism. I want to see Reuters do well, and I want to say nice things about its journalism, especially when I’m writing about people working in the same building or newsroom as myself. Saying nice things about my colleagues at Reuters is a good way of making them smile and have warm fuzzy feelings towards me—as is, to a lesser extent, saying rude things about their competitors at Bloomberg or elsewhere.

Having journalists write about other journalists is always going to involve conflicts. I’m much more comfortable doing it than most journalists, which is one reason I got the fellowship. But I’m not immune from basic human feelings about people I know socially or at work.

Does that conflict disqualify me from writing about financial and economic journalism? I don’t think so, and neither does CJR. But if you think it does, then it’s one more reason—along with the sponsorship from Peterson—not to read my posts. I would however like it if you at least gave them a taste test first. If you think I’m a paid shill for Reuters or Peterson, then by all means stop reading. But that’s not what I want to be, and it’s certainly not what I’ve been asked to be. And in this era of personal brands, it’s not in my personal interest to be such a shill, either.

If you’re wondering “Why Felix?” The answer is, the dude can flat-out blog, and he can critique the media on economic issues (among many others) like few others. Just watch.

Like I said, it’s an experiment. We’ll rely on readers to judge for themselves, and we’re not worried.

Actually, just the opposite.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , ,