Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, gave an argument about the Post’s use of copy produced by the Peter Peterson funded "Fiscal Times." This argument can also be used to justify the use of "news" stories generated by any "news" service created by an advocacy group.
As background, Peter G. Peterson is a billionaire investment banker who has been using his vast fortune to try to cut back and/or privatize Social Security and Medicare for the last two decades. He recently started the "Fiscal Times" as a new news service that reports on budget issues. His son, Michael Peterson, hired the staff. Coincidentally, the Post ran their first story from Peterson’s news service on New Year’s eve.
Alexander notes these facts, but then decides that the Post was still keeping with proper journalistic standards because it maintained control over the content of the news. He also noted that Peterson’s news service employs highly reputable reporters. And, he was assured by both Peter Peterson that he exerts no control over the news service and by Michael Peterson that he played no role in the writing of the story in question. To Alexander, this puts the Post in the clear in using copy produced by the "Fiscal Times."
Let’s imagine that the The NRA started the "Firearms Gazette" or that the tobacco industry funded "Smoking Today." Suppose they hired some top notch reporters to provide content, a task that would probably not be difficult given the current job market for journalists. Suppose further that each of these lobbying groups assured the Post and other news outlets that the reporters had a complete free hand to write whatever they chose.
Would the Post use the content from these news services? Mr. Alexander argues that they would be justified in doing so. After all, the fact that they have credible reporters and the assurance of independence are apparently sufficient for allowing their copy into the Post.
Mr. Alexander apparently cannot see any difference between a news service that is created by a person/organization with an explicit agenda and a service that is created by a foundation with no particular ax to grind. It is not the same thing to accept copy from the Fiscal Times as it is to use material developed by the Kaiser Foundation’s Kaiser Health News. The Kaiser Foundation has established itself as a credible source for data on health care that is not tied to any specific agenda.
The same is absolutely not true for the Peterson Foundation or Peter Peterson. Can anyone imagine the Peterson Foundation putting a story showing how much the failure of the Fed to combat the housing bubble added to country’s debt? How about a piece that showed that the U.S. deficit problem is driven entirely by our broken health care system?
No, these pieces, or many others like them, are not going to run in the Fiscal Times, because that is not what Peter Peterson wants to buy with his millions. And, the very good reporters who have signed up to work for the Fiscal Times know very well what the boss wants, even if he does not intervene directly in their reporting.
In fact, Alexander even admitted that the Fiscal Times could not produce one little story without showing its bias. As Alexander noted:
"The story had serious deficiencies.
A footnote said only that Fiscal Times is ‘an independent digital news publication reporting on fiscal, budgetary, health-care and international economics issues.’ But it should have disclosed that it was created and funded by Peterson and noted his interest in the issues.
The story quoted the head of the Concord Coalition, ‘a nonpartisan group that advocates entitlement reform and balanced budgets.’ It failed to divulge that the group receives funding from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. ….
The story also cited data from a study by the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, again failing to note that it was the same Peterson who is behind the Fiscal Times.
The timing of the story was problematic, coming weeks before the Senate may consider the commission idea. The Fiscal Times plans to cover a spectrum of issues, but having its first story focused on one so closely tied to Peterson was inviting suspicion about its motives.
Finally, the story also was not sufficiently balanced with the views of those opposed to a fast-track commission. "
That’s a lot of mistakes in an article that is only 935 words, all of them favoring Peterson’s political agenda. It’s great that the Post’s ombudsman was willing to acknowledge these errors, but as Alexander notes, he wrote this column because the Fiscal Times article became a "scandal" due to the hard work of many individuals and organizations around the country. Is there any reason to expect that the Post’s editors or its ombudsman will do a better job of protecting against the bias in the Fiscal Times when the national spotlight is not on them?