Conflicts of interest and the new media moguls

5790408612_8952178d3f_mWashington Post executive editor Martin Baron has rejected a demand by a group of left-leaning activists that the Post more fully disclose Amazon.com’s business dealings with the CIA.

Nearly 33,000 people have signed an online petition put together by RootsAction, headed by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, to call attention to Amazon’s $600 million contract to provide cloud services to the CIA. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. Here is the text of the petition:

A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage. We strongly urge the Washington Post to be fully candid with its readers about the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, is the founder and CEO of Amazon which recently landed a $600 million contract with the CIA. The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.

Baron, in his response, argues that the Post “has among the strictest ethics policies in the field of journalism, and we vigorously enforce it. We have routinely disclosed corporate conflicts when they were directly relevant to our coverage. We reported on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA contracts in our coverage of plans by Jeff Bezos to purchase The Washington Post.” Baron goes on to point out that the Post has been a leader in reporting on the National Security Agency and on the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian government’s fight against an insurgency, writing:

You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets.

Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community.

(Note: I first learned about the petition from Greg Mitchell’s blog, Pressing Issues.)

The exchange between RootsAction and Baron highlights the conflicts of interest that can arise when wealthy individuals such as Bezos buy in to the newspaper business. It’s a situation that affects The Boston Globe as well, as its editors juggle the lower-stakes conflict between John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and his majority interest in the Red Sox.

Baron himself is not unfamiliar with the Red Sox conflict, as the New York Times Co., from whom Henry bought the Globe, owned a minority stake in the team and in New England Sports Network, which carries Red Sox games, during most of Baron’s years as Globe editor.

The way the Globe handled it during those years was just about right: don’t disclose in sports stories, but disclose whenever the paper covers the Red Sox as a business. Current Globe editor Brian McGrory has insisted that Henry will not interfere. Henry, in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week, said he would not breech the wall of separation between the Globe’s news operations and its business interests.

Of course, it’s not as though the era in which news organizations were typically owned by publicly traded corporations was free of such conflicts. (The Times Co., after all, is a publicly traded corporation, though the Sulzberger family calls the shots.) Media critic Danny Schechter noted in his book “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” that MSNBC — then in its pre-liberal phase — was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq even as its then-corporate parent, General Electric Co., was a leading military contractor.

But the rise of a new breed of media moguls such as Bezos, Henry and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register, who buy their way into the news business with their own personal wealth, seems likely to bring the issue of conflicts to the fore. The same is true of a media entrepreneur of a different sort — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is launching an online venture called First Look Media with (among others) the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

It is the very fact that these individuals have been successful that makes them such intriguing players in the quest to reinvent the news business. But disclosure and non-interference need to be at the forefront of their ethical codes.

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