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.

NEFAC seeks First Amendment champions

The following is a press release from the New England First Amendment Coalition, which is affiliated with the School of Journalism at Northeastern University.

banner2The New England First Amendment Coalition is seeking applications for a pair of annual awards to recognize both private citizens and professional journalists who aggressively advance the people’s knowledge of what government is doing — or failing to do — on their behalf.

The Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award and the Freedom of Information Award will be presented at NEFAC’s annual luncheon Feb. 7 in Boston. Candidates for the Citizenship Award should have shown tenacity or bravery in the face of difficulty in obtaining information of which the public has a right to know. Both awards will be presented to New Englanders for activity in the six-state region in calendar year 2013.

Nominations for the Citizenship Award are due Jan. 8 and can be made by submitting these forms by email to rosecavanagh.nefac@gmail.com or by fax to 401.751.7542.

Rosanna Cavanagh, NEFAC’s executive director, said that the FOI Award will be a recognition of journalism at its best, working to bring the sometimes shadowy workings of the government into the light of day. Work in broadcast, online or print media is eligible. It will be given to a New England journalist for work that protects or advances the public’s right to know under federal or state law. Preference will be given to applicants who overcome significant official resistance.

Applicants for the FOI Award should submit their story or series along with a cover letter explaining the process of getting the story, why it was a significant accomplishment and how it affected the public. Entries, which also are due by Jan. 8, may be submitted electronically. The entry forms are here.

James Risen
James Risen

NEFAC will honor James Risen, investigative reporter for The New York Times, with the fourth annual Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award at the luncheon. Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s done ground-breaking work on domestic spying, now faces legal peril for refusing to disclose the source for his account of a failed CIA operation in Iran. The Hamblett Award is named for the late chairman and publisher of the Providence Journal. Previous recipients include Philip Balboni, co-founder of GlobalPost; Martin Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe and now executive editor of The Washington Post; and the late Anthony Lewis, longtime columnist for The New York Times.

The luncheon will be held in conjunction with the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s 2014 convention and trade show at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, librarians, academics and private citizens. We work in partnership with the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at the Northeastern University School of Journalism.