Why a bad deal by the press is a big deal to the public

Thursday, June 1, 2000

We’ve come to expect a certain amount of silliness from television news operations.

That’s why many of us tune in the nightly news on TV as much to be entertained as to be informed. We’ve learned to take this “news” not only with a grain of salt but a bag of popcorn. Why else would TV executives turn over coveted news assignments to a Hollywood hunk, a photogenic judge, a perky congresswoman, a well-coiffed presidential adviser, or a sexy detective from “NYPD Blue”?

For serious professionalism we look to the printed press, even though, on occasion, we are disappointed. There are some gold standards in the printed press, among them The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. But even these titans must from time to time stumble. Last week, they took a real fall.

You may not have heard about it, because only media writer Howard Kurtz of the Post has written about it. There were short accounts on a couple of Web sites and the Times carried a curious non-disclosure disclosure in the last two paragraphs of a lengthy main story. Other than that, a deafening silence from the mainstream media.

Here’s what happened: A publicist for United Airlines and US Airways offered the Times, the Journal and the Post an exclusive on the story of a $4.3 billion merger of the two airlines. The catch: They had to agree not to interview any outside sources for their stories.

This should be a no-brainer, right? First, how can it be exclusive if two other major newspapers have it at the same time? Second, this deal didn’t involve a routine embargo on the time of publication, but an embargo on sources. Third, it was an insult to their journalistic integrity.

But the editors bought into this deal eagerly. It wasn’t just an ethical transgression, but also an unseemly display of insecurity for such lions of the press. In the end, they were saved from their ethical short-sightedness by an online news site, which broke the merger story the old-fashioned way — by street-level reporting rather than newsroom deal-making.

Wait. That isn’t all. When asked by Kurtz about this agreement a few days later, all three editors not only defended the deal but gave every indication that in their minds it wasn’t that big a deal.

Perhaps not. After all, we haven’t heard much from the mainstream news media in follow-up stories. That may mean either that other journalists don’t recognize the ethical implications or that such deals are not all that unusual. There weren’t even any statements of outrage issued by media ethicists or journalistic organizations. No howls, no fouls?

The Society of Business Editors and Writers has no official position on such deals because it’s such a new issue, according to Charles A. Jaffe, an officer of the professional organization. “There are plenty of cases where public relations folks have tried to control the news,” he said. “What’s different here is that a) the newspapers agreed to this deal, and b) everybody found out about it.”

Jaffe, a personal finance columnist at The Boston Globe, worries that this particular deal sets a “dangerous precedent” by making things more difficult for smaller newspapers with fewer resources. “Now the public relations people can go to an editor at a small newspaper and say, ‘Look, the big boys did it.’ This is the trickle-down effect that will happen well below the radar screen of Howard Kurtz.”

Media ethicist Bob Steele, of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., worries about “an erosion of journalistic independence” with these kinds of deals.

“The publicist hired by the airlines had a mission that was in direct conflict with the mission of these newspapers,” said Steele. “The publicist’s goal was to restrict the newsgathering, thereby limiting the scope of the reporting and favorably spinning the story for the airlines.”

The mainstream media may have been reluctant to pick up on this issue, but a coalition of media critics, scholars and activists quickly noted its significance. Those signing a letter to business editors at all three newspapers were George Gerbner, former dean of the Annenberg School of Communication; Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting; Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy; Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media ecology at New York University; Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert and John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy. In a letter to business editors at all three newspapers, they said such deals “betray readers’ trust.”

“By adopting such secret agreements, your newspaper basically tells the story the corporate subject wants you to tell, while pretending to be an objective news source. Other voices are excluded entirely from the discussion and debate, even though the corporate conduct in question may affect them personally and deeply,” the group’s letter said.

The signers urged the editors to share with their readers their policies on disclosing such agreements and asked, rhetorically I’m sure, whether they would agree “to running a box under a news story disclosing any secret exclusion agreements, indicating what points of view have been intentionally omitted.”

The discomfiting reality behind this and other such deals is that the newsmaker’s version of events goes unquestioned for a whole news cycle. In a deal that doesn’t even provide exclusivity, only parity with competitors, editors are trading away the readers’ right to completeness, accuracy and balance — at a minimum.

Those are the very things that are uppermost in readers’ minds these days, the things that are savaging press credibility. That failing credibility translates into failing public support for the press, which goes right to the heart of efforts to rein in journalists and divest them of their First Amendment franchise.

Just one symptom of the erosion of trust and support is the long list of recent incidents in which judges across the nation are shutting journalists up, shutting them out, fining them, seizing their film and notes, handcuffing them, and throwing them in jail. Like everyone else, judges more and more view journalists as unethical, unprofessional and unworthy of First Amendment protections. They especially can see that punishing and harassing the press plays well with the public.

The editors at those three newspapers may have thought they were serving readers’ interests by agreeing to a deal that ensured they would have the story first, even if it wasn’t the whole story. But there is a particularly heavy price to pay when even the best succumb to the temptation to dismiss fundamental tenets of their profession.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.