A story in The Fiscal Times recently caught my eye. But even before I could decide whether to write about it, I bumped into couple of stubborn facts. Neither counts as news. But I’d like to point them out—and then get on with the hard work of blogging.
First, the easy one: I’m a Washington nerd. Shocking, I know.
The story that impressed me was about a meeting of President Obama’s fiscal commission, and what I liked was the way it captured, in lively, back-and-forth detail, the tension between two big D.C. figures—Alan Simpson, the Republican co-chairman of the panel, and Grover Norquist, who leads Americans for Tax Reform.
Trust me. In a city of talking points, strategies, and spin, their relationship is one of high drama, blunt language, and raw emotions. (I know. I need to get out more.) The Simpson-Norquist exchange didn’t get much notice from the press, but The Fiscal Times covered it well.
Which gets me to the second truth: this Peterson thing is tricky.
When I say “this Peterson thing,” I’m not talking about my CJR gig. Well, not just my CJR gig. But that’s part of it.
My title is CJR’s Peterson Fellow, and the job is to critique media coverage of economic and fiscal policy for CJR.org. As CJR put it when I was hired in late January, the goal is “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.
That’s a great big patch, and a great time to be writing about it.
As Mike Hoyt, CJR’s editor, explained then, I’m called the Peterson Fellow because the position is funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.
While all journalism business models face potential conflicts of interest, the philanthropy-funded approach poses particular challenges. (See “Bite the Hand That Feeds,” in the May/June issue of CJR, for a good analysis of this situation.)
But after working at it for a while, I can confidently report that the dilemma I’ve been wrestling with is a bit more complicated than most.
Supporting my CJR work is just a tiny slice of what the foundation, and the man behind it, are doing to increase “public awareness of the nature and urgency of key fiscal challenges threatening America’s future, and to accelerating action on them.”
Peterson, Commerce secretary in the Nixon administration, was a co-founder of the Blackstone Group. When Blackstone went public in 2007, Peterson got rich, and the longtime deficit hawk promised to spend $1 billion to draw attention to the national debt. Yes, $1 billion.
His foundation is spending those big bucks on “educational campaigns” and “citizen engagement efforts,” as well as funding think tanks and advocacy groups in Washington and around the country, all to make sure the issue registers on the public’s radar.
Tax records show that Peterson
’s foundation had handed out had disbursed $300 million to his foundation (*see note below) by March 31 of last year, the most recent data available, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. In addition to what his foundation is spending, Peterson himself is backing The Fiscal Times.
So, back to me. At one level, I could be CJR’s Peterson fellow, cheering or chiding The Fiscal Times, a Peterson-funded venture.
Awkward? Yeah, maybe a little. But totally manageable.
As my CJR colleague Trudy Lieberman wrote at the time, The Fiscal Times and The Washington Post handled the Peterson terrain poorly in late 2009, when the Post ran a rose-colored Fiscal Times story about growing support for a bipartisan commission to tackle the national debt—but made no mention of Peterson or his work on the issue.
This potential for institutional conflict should be easy to deal with. Disclose it and move on. That’s what CJR’s Ryan Chittum does every time he mentions Goldman Sachs, “an Audit funder” (though we’ll soon switch to “a former Audit funder,” since it has been quite a while).
The Fiscal Times has gotten better at this (and so has the Post). Here’s how the site recently handled the intertwining Peterson interests:
(The Peterson Foundation provides funding to several budget and deficit awareness groups, including America Speaks and the Concord Coalition. Separately, Peterson, a New York businessman and philanthropist, funds The Fiscal Times, an independent news service.)