Are Disclaimers Enough for WaPo When it Comes to Kaplan?

On August 22, The Washington Post ran an editorial about the Obama administration’s plans to further regulate for-profit colleges—a move that could harm schools like Kaplan University, which is owned by the Washington Post Company. To its credit, the Post put its disclaimer way up in the second paragraph of the editorial:

Readers should know that we have a conflict of interest regarding this subject. The Washington Post Co., which owns the Post newspaper and, also owns Kaplan University and other for-profit schools of higher education that, according to company officials, could be harmed by the proposed regulations.

But was that disclaimer sufficient? I recently talked about this with occasional CJR contributor Daniel Luzer at his higher-education blog on The Washington Monthly’s site. With his permission, I’m reprinting the Q & A below:

Daniel Luzer: Given the financial relationship that the Post has with one for-profit school, is that full disclosure statement enough?

Justin Peters: I agree that full disclosure doesn’t seem to entirely capture what’s going on with Kaplan.

DL: But there’s something interesting about the nature of that full disclosure thing. The paper actually steps all over itself to explain this in every article about for-profit schools.

JP: Well, what more can the Post do? Divest itself of Kaplan? That’s not reasonable. Kaplan’s the only thing keeping that company in business. Not report on these issues? That doesn’t seem like a great idea either.

DL: Well right. That’s the thing. Full disclosure would be more like “the Washington Post would totally go bankrupt without Kaplan.”

JP: Yeah. “This newspaper would not be here if not for LSAT prep courses and proprietary schools, but trust our reporting anyway!”

DL: It actually didn’t seem like a problem until that particular editorial. In general the Post’s coverage of the for-profit education industry has been very straightforward.

JP: If the Post is going to run editorials like that, then it should perhaps also give some space on the same page or opposite that page for an independent observer to write about Kaplan and Kaplan University. Like a counterpoint thing.

DL: I mean, there is a discussion about that very issue.

JP: Like, really digging into that “high-pressure recruiting” the Post mentions in its editorial.

DL: But how can you not question when the Post has an editorial that looks like it was written by the president of the University of Phoenix, or some less legitimate proprietary college.

JP: Seriously. It’s like that Simpsons episode where the energy bar company sponsors the newscast. “This just in: Powersauce is amazing!”

DL: Like “more poor people might be cut out of college,” as the editorial says. And that’s enough? That’s the whole problem, really? It seems like that might be a very good opportunity for someone else to explain that just because for-profit schools enroll lots of low-income people doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all great. It’s still possible to do a much better job.

JP: It’s okay that they write about this sort of thing. It would be weird if the Post didn’t. But if the paper is going to write about the issue, it should give equal space for an ombudsman of some sort to evaluate the editorial’s claims.

DL: Do other papers have that sort of thing? Is there any other paper with a similarly odd business model?

JP: Well….

DL: Surely, something like this must have come up before. Well, I can just remember how sometimes like GE workers would strike—

JP: GE owns NBC.

DL: —and Tom Brokaw would do the story and at the end be like “GE is the parent corporation of this broadcasting company.”

JP: Just recently, News Corp., the parent company of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, gave a million dollars to the Republican Governors Association.

DL: That’s a little more indirect, however.

JP: Tribune Company used to own the Chicago Cubs

DL: That could have resulted in some interesting editorials.

JP: “What this country needs is more baseball!”

DL: “And higher ticket prices are exactly what this city needs!”

But I’m looking for a situation in which like, R. J. Reynolds owned a newspaper in 1964, when the Surgeon General issued the report about the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

JP: Yeah, I have no idea. McClatchy papers own 15 percent of

DL: I think having a directly questionable relationship like the Washington Post Company’s one is probably pretty rare. And I’m sure Kaplan University makes up much, much more of the Post Company’s profit than it used to.

JP: Yeah. Honestly, it’s a smart move for newspapers to diversify and invest in things that actually do make money, but when ethical issues like this come up, they need to think a bit more about how to address them.

DL: The thing with this Kaplan thing is that I actually feel like stuff like this is going to come up more often. Since the publications themselves don’t make money, they have to have other financial involvements.

I mean it’s very complicated, especially for something like this. Like, you can’t just be the shill for the money maker you own, but then how can the Post now ever say something positive about proprietary schools and be taken seriously?

Maybe something like this needs a new standard.

JP: Well, okay. But, honestly, a lot of the time I think people get too worked up over stuff like this. It’s not like the head of the Kaplan division was standing in the newsroom, dictating the editorial. I doubt the people who wrote the editorial have ever even met the Kaplan people. These are big companies.

DL: Of course. That would be foolish and a waste of everyone’s time.

JP: The connection isn’t as direct or as nefarious as many people would think.

DL: But it’s not even necessarily about real impropriety.

JP: There is the perception of impropriety. And since people tend to be suspicious about news organizations and their motives, that perception isn’t going to go away. So, I think you’re right. Maybe we need a new standard. Maybe a simple disclaimer isn’t good enough anymore.

DL: I mean, it can be. For a news story. “This is the new law.” “This is what it’s supposed to do.” “This is the reaction to it.”

JP: Right, but for something like an editorial you need a bit more.

Like, maybe online you do more linking to other things that have been written about for-profit universities. And I really do think that ombudsman thing I mentioned earlier is a good idea.

DL: I’m sure this is going to come up again with another news source and another issue.

JP: I would be surprised if it didn’t.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.