Why the Newsweek firings are bad for press freedom

February 21, 2018

When the Manhattan DA raided Newsweek offices on January 18 the first thought of many journalists in the newsroom was “What the hell is going on?” The second was, “This is a big story.” Reporters sidled up to the police officers who eventually carted away 18 newsroom servers and asked them what they were looking for and how long they expected to be there. When Newsweek’s mysterious owners didn’t provide adequate answers, top editors assigned reporters to cover the raid.

What they reported in a series of articles published over the next few weeks was that the raid was carried out as part of a criminal investigation into Newsweek Media Group and its co-owners Johnathan Davis and Etienne Uzac. The probe, which has been going on for more than a year, appears to be focused on loans the company took out to the purchase the computer equipment. The Newsweek coverage described links to David Jang, a Korean-American pastor who leads a Christian sect called “the community,” and to Olivet University, a California-based Christian college with close ties to Jang which had received more than $1.5 million from Newsweek as part of an R&D agreement.

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The Newsweek stories were similar to articles published in a variety of publications from The New York Times to BuzzFeed. But they were too much for Newsweek CEO Dev Pragad, who fired the magazine’s top editors, Bob Roe and Ken Li. Another dozen reporters resigned in protest, throwing the Newsweek newsroom, and the newsroom of its sister publication International Business Times (IBT), into turmoil. “The reporters were assigned to report on the company to restore our credibility,” noted Jay Cassano, one of the reporters at IBT who resigned. “By firing them, the business side sunk the outlet’s credibility forever.”

Last night, after some tense internal wrangling Newsweek posted the story that got its top editors fired—or at least a version of it. An editor’s note said the story was published only after “a senior Newsweek Media Group executive said the company’s owners would ensure independent review and newsroom autonomy going forward.” The Newsweek investigation detailed entanglements between Newsweek Media Group and Olivet University including an arrangements whereby Olivet provided officials in Dutchess County, New York with $150,000 in free advertising in Newsweek at a time when the university was seeking a permits to develop nearby campus.

These firings appear to be legal, and certainly don’t violate the First Amendment. But from a press freedom perspective they are disturbing because they challenge a norm at the heart of American journalism, which is that the business side stays out of the newsroom and does not dictate coverage. Respect for the so-called Chinese Wall is what makes the independent media independent.  

The Newsweek firings are disturbing because they challenge a norm at the heart of American journalism: that the business side stays out of the newsroom.

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The acid test for this principle comes when a media outlet is forced to cover itself. That situation has never been easy, and reporters and editors have long understood that there are unstated limits. “In the best of circumstances, this is a fairly difficult exercise,” acknowledged Rick Edmonds, the media business analyst at Poynter, the journalism institute in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

Still there are plenty of examples of news organization covering themselves even when the story was uncomfortable. When Tampa Bay Times Editor Eugene Patterson was arrested for a DUI in 1976, he ordered it be put on the front page, arguing that as the editor of a newspaper he has “to be able to say for the rest of his life, ‘I put myself on Page 1, so you can’t ask me not to put you there.’” In May 2003, a team of reporters at The New York Times published a journalistic accounting of the Jayson Blair scandal, dissecting his fictionalized stories filled with falsified quotes.  

Best practice, according to NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, is to assemble a team of reporters and editors who work in “capsule somewhere” and make independent decisions about coverage without management oversight. Over the years, Folkenflik has covered many internal NPR issues, including the firing of Juan Williams over comments he made about Muslims; downsizing in the newsroom; and most recently, allegations of sexual harassment.

A new generation of media owners seem far less committed to this principle. Best practice is certainly not the way to describe the response to the coverage of the sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015 by a mysterious buyer who sought to hide his identity. A team of reporters at the paper uncovered that the new owner was casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. James Dehaven, a former Review-Journal reporter who was part of the team that worked on the story recalled, “At first, I had a 100 percent supportive environment, and then it became extremely uncooperative.” A year later, a columnist at the paper resigned after being told he couldn’t write critically about Adelson. And Politico reported that the newsroom was awash in rumors that journalists critical of Adelson could lose their jobs.

The newspaper’s new publisher Craig Moon refuted this. In June 2017 he told CNN that Adelson is an ideal owner who has stayed out of news coverage while providing resources that have allowed the Review-Journal to hire new reporters, create an investigative team, and revive its Washington bureau.

Ownership transitions are always tricky to cover since journalists have no assurance from the new owner and don’t know the lay of the land. The fact that Patrick Soon-Shiong, the relatively unknown billionaire who recently bought the Los Angeles Times has publicly criticized media coverage of business has raised concerns about his tolerance for any critical reporting in the paper he now owns.

An extreme — though thus far hypothetical example — involves Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel who after secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s invasion of privacy lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker is now bidding to acquire its archives. Thiel describes his efforts to destroy Gawker as a service to society, language that would make a Chinese censor proud. Thiel’s vendetta against the Gawker media group was fueled by anger over coverage of his personal life. The mere possibility that he might try to acquire Gawker’s archives in order take down the offending stories is deeply chilling. (Thiel donated $1 million to CPJ between 2008 and 2013.)

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When it comes to press freedom, norms are just as important as laws. President Trump has every legal right to call journalists “enemies of the American people” but his overheated rhetoric erodes a longstanding norm. Presidents have always criticized coverage. They have also defended the role of an independent media in holding the powerful accountable, a key American value. Likewise, media owners have a legal right to meddle in the newsroom. But such actions undermine media trust and independence, eroding public support. The concept of an independent newsroom has also been an inspiration to journalists in many parts of the world where the concept of a Chinese Wall dividing business and news is weak or nonexistent.  

The ability of journalists and editors to cover their own newsroom with independence depends on either the support of management or a strong job market, since journalists who push the boundaries also know they could be fired. With job prospects grim, the cost of taking a stand can be exceeding high. As one editor who recently confronted the dilemma told me, “I’m ready to sacrifice my job for a principle. But I’m not thrilled about sacrificing my career.”

While it’s a triumph that the story is now out, much damage has been done. When Newsweek’s owners forced out top editors they betrayed of the public trust that comes with being a media owner. It may also turn out to be an extremely poor business decision because it undermined the value of a great American journalism brand, albeit one that has already been tarnished.

It’s a fundamental principle of American journalism that editors, not owners or advertisers, make the news decisions. A weakening of this norm at a time when the media as an institution is under constant attack from the president sets a dangerous precedent that could resonate across the American media landscape and around the world.

Additional reporting from Avi Asher-Schapiro, who worked briefly worked at Newsweek Media Group property International Business Times in 2016.

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Joel Simon is a fellow at Tow Center for Digital Journalism. His next book is The Infodemic: How Censorship Made the World Sicker and Less Free co-authored with Robert Mahoney.