campaign desk

Dust-up at The Washington Post

And new questions about the new news services
January 4, 2010

This weekend the Internet was all a-twitter over a piece that The Washington Post ran right before New Year’s, headlined: “Support grows for tackling nation’s debt.” The story, produced by a new publication called The Fiscal Times, was laced with quotes supporting a new bipartisan commission, proposed by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), with broad power to cut federal spending and increase taxes—in other words, to make government leaner by reforming the tax code and curbing outlays for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Those are the social programs that eat up huge chunks of the federal budget and have always been juicy targets of the deficit hawks. It’s possible that language creating such a commission could be added to the debt limit legislation up for a Senate vote on Jan. 20, or it could be added to the President’s next budget request in early February.

The story reported that President Obama “has voiced support for such a plan”; that thirty-five Republican and Democratic senators, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, have signed on; and that Nancy Pelosi, once “an ardent opponent of the idea,” may now accept such a commission, which would be composed of sixteen members of Congress and two administration officials. If fourteen of the eighteen commission members agree on reforming the tax code or cutting Medicare and Social Security, Congress would have to immediately consider their recommendations and give them an up or down vote without amendment. To some, the body could deal with that pesky problem of entitlement spending without much debate or discussion. Opponents see the commission as a stalking horse to make serious changes that could undercut Social Security as a social insurance program once and for all.

The story omitted any reference to the considerable opposition from some forty organizations like the NAACP, the SEIU, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, NOW, and the AARP, and Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, who isn’t keen on the idea of putting Social Security and Medicare at risk. And while it did admit there is “widespread disagreement on how to respond” to the country’s mounting public debt, readers would have a hard time gleaning from the Post story that the proposed commission faced any resistance at all.

At the end, readers learned that The Fiscal Times, identified as an independent digital news publication reporting on fiscal, budgetary, health care, and international economics issues, produced the article for WaPo. The Post did not reveal to its readers the pedigree of one of the venture’s initial funders: Peter G. Peterson. In a December press release, Peterson said that the news operation, dubbed “The Source for All Things Fiscal,” will be supplying content to other online publications and newspapers. “The Fiscal Times is a new entity whose time has come, an independently supported publication comprised of top journalists and opinion makers covering the critical economic issues of our time,” he said.

Peterson had a long career on Wall Street, and was commerce secretary under Richard Nixon and chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. What’s relevant to WaPo’s news story, though, is that Peterson is the founding president of The Concord Coalition, a group that hasn’t been shy about speaking out against entitlements like Social Security. The piece quotes the group’s executive director, Robert L. Bixby, but Peterson’s involvement in the group goes unmentioned. It also refers to data from the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, a year-old partnership set up to “address a number of shortcomings in the current budget rules, concepts and processes.” That’s jargon for changing the rules of how entitlements like Social Security would work. Again, no disclosure here from The Fiscal Times.

A full disclosure is required here. CJR, which runs partially on the philanthropic model (in addition to the advertising and subscription model), will soon announce the hiring of a part-time fellow funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The purpose, as the grant proposal puts it, will be to “encourage the business media to look at the consequences of the government bailout and the larger financial crisis, which is occuring in the context of two wars, potential expansive and expensive reforms such as health care, and amid rising entitlement spending.” The fellow will produce stories for, via two of our news desks—The Audit, our online business desk, and Campaign Desk, our politics and policy desk.

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The Post story raises important questions about the use, quality, and amount of disclosure necessary for pieces created by so-called independent news sources for the MSM. Free content inevitably comes with a quid pro quo, and the public needs to know who is producing and funding such content. That’s why vocal supporters of Social Security—supporters like The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, author Nancy Altman, and Yale professor emeritus Theodore Marmor wrote to Post ombudsman Andy Alexander protesting the paper’s partnership with the Fiscal Times and the article from an “extremely biased source.”

WaPo executive editor Marcus Brauchli told Politico that the paper works “with foundations and non-profit partners who produce journalism on subjects of interest and value to our readers.” He added that where we “use material from outside sources, we always disclose the source of such journalism and ensure it meets The Post’s standards for independence and authority.” But the Post slipped on this one, and its lack of full disclosure and partnership with Peterson’s group prompted last weekend’s e-mail traffic and generated another letter, this one to Brauchli, pointing out “factual errors” in the paper’s story. For example, the letter contends that Nancy Pelosi remains opposed to the commission, despite an inference in the Fiscal Times piece that she has changed her mind. The letter also says that the administration has not taken a public position on the matter of the commission, though the Post/Fiscal Times piece says that President Obama has “voiced support” for a such commission.

Politico began to frame the larger issue, noting that both it and the Post have used stories produced by third parties—from ProPublica—and that the Post and other papers have picked up stories produced by Kaiser Health News, a project of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. All of which brings up the matter of the Kaiser News Service, which has been a prominent source of information during the health reform debate with its own news stories, columns, features, and multimedia presentations. The Fiscal Times’s advisory board includes Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation and a hot, go-to source for reporters crafting their own stories about reform. Will interlocking directorates become a feature of these news arrangements? Is the Fiscal Times drawing from Kaiser’s expertise and partnering with news organizations to supply stories that arguably these organizations should be doing themselves?

Like Peterson’s news service, Kaiser’s operation bills itself as editorially independent. Altman told the Post in November: “We [presumably the foundation] don’t want to become combatants in the fray…We want to control health-care costs, we want to improve the quality of health care and we want everybody covered.” The Kaiser Family Foundation is listed as a partner on the Web site of the Herndon Alliance, a group whose partners have promoted the brand of health reform that got through Congress last month.

How far should mainstream news outlets go in taking content from news outfits that have a strong point of view? Is it acceptable to take content from some and not others? How should they disclose funders with possible hidden agendas that may be embedded in the stories the public comes to rely on? And is an independently produced story with a point of view different from one produced by a newspaper that may also have strong opinions? Newspapers have long published stories on a range of topics and accepted advertising from multiple sources. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and there are lots of payers funding content for the entire paper. But when a news service supplies specific content on narrow topics, or a philanthropic organization funds a single magazine writer to cover a topic near and dear to its mission, one payer can more easily call the tune.

The advertising-supported model of journalism always had its own problems with conflicts. So does the philanthropic model. It’s healthy for Kuttner et al to push hard on the Post’s deal with The Fiscal Times, and for readers and critics in general to keep a hard eye on the philanthropic model. We at CJR will do the same. For consumers of news, it has always been caveat emptor. Now, with news services inserting their stories into the MSM, those words take on added meaning.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.