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.

From the New York Times, political #fail in three acts

Three examples from Sunday’s New York Times of political coverage that makes you want to bang your head against an immoveable object until you’ve forgotten what you’ve just read:

• Maureen Dowd’s column, a characteristically superficial attack on Mitt Romney that veers into the ditch when, about halfway through, she sneers at Romney’s “shiny white family.” Seriously? What color is the Dowd family, Mo?

• Jeff Zeleny’s news analysis, in which he opines — oh, sorry, writes analytically — that both the Romney and the Obama campaigns are relying mainly on negative advertising.

Of course, there are few things more satisfying to the media mindset than asserting that both sides are just as bad. But as Zeleny writes as an aside to which he attaches no seeming significance (and as Greg Mitchell flags), the Romney campaign’s ads are five-to-one negative, whereas Obama’s are a relatively cheery two-to-one negative.

Even worse, Zeleny makes no attempt to assess whose negative ads are more truthful. The mere existence of negative ads on both sides is not the least bit newsworthy if one side’s consist of unfair attacks and the other’s are more or less on the level. All in all, a worthless exercise, yet the Times played it at the top of the front page. (Younger readers may be interested to learn that some news sites print a portion of their content on dead trees.)

• Public editor Arthur Brisbane, nearing the end of his somnolent stint as the Times’ in-house critic, laments that political coverage is too focused on the negative campaigns being waged (naturally) by both sides and not focused enough on the issues.

Now, this is a difficult one for me to wrap my arms around, because I’m as critical as anyone of horse-race coverage and the political press’ obsession with polls and tactics. But the alternative Brisbane proposes — “substance” and “issues” — strikes me as absurd given the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

This election will not be decided on issues. There is nothing important to learn by studying the fine points of Romney’s or President Obama’s tax proposals or financial-regulation plans.

Rather, this election is about broad themes, tribalism and cultural signifiers. There is more significance in polls results showing that one in six Americans believes Obama is a Muslim than there is in 50 stories telling us where he and Romney stand on cap-and-trade. Political coverage that avoids that central truth is destined to fail.

Where is our Hunter Thompson?

Photo (cc) by unwiederbringlichbegangenes and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Nation goes open-source

The Nation, the leading left-liberal opinion journal, has launched a slick new website using Drupal, an open-source content-management system that’s free and can be tweaked by anyone. “If he understood open source, Glenn Beck might well denounce it as a socialist practice,” writes Peter Rothberg.

A bit of an exaggeration, given that Drupal is used by such diverse organizations as GateHouse Media and the White House. (Oh, wait …)

The best news for media junkies is that Greg Mitchell’s blog, Media Fix, has finally made its long-awaited debut. Mitchell, the former editor of Editor & Publisher, is a double-barreled master of the tweet, posting what seems like 18 hours a day at @GregMitch and @MediaFixBlog. His blog goes straight into my Google Reader list.

Like its more moderate counterpart, The New Republic, The Nation will reserve some of its premium content for paying customers, writes editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. A shame, since opinion journals are trafficking in influence, not revenue.

Nevertheless, I suspect TheNation.com will quickly prove to be more widely read (if it isn’t already) than the rather hidebound print edition.

Editor & Publisher lives

The venerable newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher lives after going dark at the end of 2009. But editor Greg Mitchell tweets that neither he nor staff writer Joe Strupp were offered jobs at the new E&P. The new editor will be another E&P veteran, Mark Fitzgerald.

Will Mitchell and Strupp’s Web site, E&P in Exile, morph into something else now that the magazine is being revived without them? Stay tuned.