The Post's alliance with Fiscal Times
There were no cries of protest when The Fiscal Times was formed in mid-December. Publications like the Washington Business Journal and others wrote about it, noting that it was created and funded by billionaire Peter Peterson, a former Wall Street investment banker and one-time Nixon administration commerce secretary. A Fiscal Times press release prominently mentioned Peterson’s role and quoted him as saying it would offer “groundbreaking reporting and commentary” on fiscal, budgetary, health care and international economic issues.
In the journalism community, The Fiscal Times was greeted uncritically as simply the latest start-up to offer specialized reporting to news organizations whose staffs have been badly depleted through cutbacks.
But when the first Fiscal Times story appeared in The Washington Post on Dec. 31, as part of a new partnership agreement with the newspaper, there was an uproar. As my Sunday ombudsman column noted, critics accused The Post of running “propaganda” from Peterson, who has very publicly warned about federal deficits and urged controlling the cost of entitlement programs, including Social Security. Numerous Web sites and bloggers attacked Peterson and The Post. One group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, issued a member “Action Alert” with the headline: “Washington Post Lets Lobbyists Write Its Stories.” It was a preposterous distortion from a group claiming to care about accuracy.
Is The Fiscal Times any different than other so-called “non-profit” news organizations that have come before? Mostly, I think they’re the same. But The Fiscal Times is different in one important way.
Like The Fiscal Times, the others are funded by wealthy foundations and individuals. New York-based ProPublica, for instance, was launched in early 2008 with funding from the foundation of Herbert and Marion Sandler, wealthy philanthropists who have financially backed a number of Democratic causes and candidates. Based in New York, ProPublica bills itself as “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” It has collaborated with The Post on several stories.
Similarly, The Post has run stories produced by Kaiser Health News, which is underwritten by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-partisan health-care policy research organization. (It is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
In all three cases, the news organizations are staffed by first-rate journalists. They have been given assurances of total independence by their funders. And The Post retains editing control.
One key difference is that Peterson is widely identified -- in Washington, at least -- as pushing a singular cause: deficit reduction. And his emphasis on controlling entitlements has put him at odds with critics who believe deficits can be controlled through other means (reduced defense spending, for instance). Peterson also has pushed the idea of a special bipartisan commission to deal with the nation’s debt. The fact that the Dec. 31 Fiscal Times story focused on the proposed commission provided ammunition to critics who believed the story was merely the first of many that would push Peterson’s agenda.
It’s understandable that critics would be concerned. But I think there are sufficient safeguards and assurances to ensure the integrity of The Post’s relationship with The Fiscal Times.
First, there’s the high quality of the journalists working for Fiscal Times. Eric Pianin, The Fiscal Times journalist who co-authored the Dec. 31 story, worked for The Post for 28 years before leaving last year. The Fiscal Times editor in chief is Jacqueline Leo, the former top editor at Reader’s Digest and Consumer Reports, as well as a former editorial director of ABC’s Good Morning America. Other writers include highly respected reporters who used to work for The Post, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Bloomberg News, as well as Fortune and Money magazines.
Second, Peterson has given very public assurances of independence. And in a Jan. 7 letter to me, he wrote:
“I am not a director or officer of the entity, and I do not intend to review any articles prior to their publication, and will not influence nor in any way be involved in decisions about editorial content. The same goes for my son Michael, who has helped with some of the initial planning for this new venture. To put it simply, I am funding TFT with no strings attached.”
Peterson said he created The Fiscal Times because “the appetite for this kind of in-depth coverage and for a dialogue on the many complex economic issues has grown exponentially, at a time when newspapers are cutting back their coverage in these areas. Simply put, the nation’s deteriorating financial condition is a very serious matter, and opinion polls show Americans are significantly concerned. That is why I decided to fund The Fiscal Times.”
He added: “Just as I will not tell TFT what it can or cannot publish, neither should a group of advocates try to suppress legitimate news and tell the Washington Post what it can and cannot publish.”
Peterson's son Michael, who helped to create The Fiscal Times, wouldn't tell me how much money had been pledged. But in an e-mailed response to questions from me, he said “a three-year plan was prepared and approved.”
Pianin is aware that the success of The Fiscal Times will depend on whether it is viewed as being truly independent and autonomous.
“Everything comes down to credibility,” he said in an interview last week. “If people think this is nothing more than an extension of... Pete Peterson’s view of the world, people in Washington aren’t going to buy it and we can’t convince our sources or our readers that this is a legitimate news organization.”
Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he is confident that “the structure that’s been established is sufficient to assure independence and the journalists who are working at Fiscal Times are people in whom I have confidence.”
Post National Editor Kevin Merida dismissed the notion of Peterson injecting his agenda into stories. “I wouldn’t know Pete Peterson if he walked in here,” he said. “We have a journalist-to-journalist relationship” with The Fiscal Times.
“I take it at face value that those [Fiscal Times] journalists wouldn’t be working there if they didn’t feel they had independence," he added.
Based on newsroom planning notes and e-mails I have seen, it is clear that The Post – not The Fiscal Times – has been setting the agenda for coverage. The Fiscal Times is pursuing more stories for The Post. And by all accounts, The Post controlled the editing of the Dec. 31 story.
There is no shortage of reporting on a broad range of issues that The Fiscal Times plans to cover. The Post has access to stories produced by the Associated Press, Bloomberg and other news services. But those services don't allow for The Post to be involved in stories from conception to publication.
“We can work with them [The Fiscal Times] much more closely in helping to shape and edit and joint-venture the stories so they are much more tailored to our audience,” said Brauchli. “They offer expertise and access to good journalists.”
After the Dec. 31 story appeared, a group of policy experts and academics wrote The Post to protest. Several of them subsequently spoke by phone with Brauchli to discuss their complaints.
“It was a very constructive meeting,” said Nancy J. Altman, an author and lawyer who formerly worked on tax issues as a Senate staffer. She also spoke with Pianin.
I share some of her specific concerns about the Dec. 31 story. It failed to disclose that The Fiscal Times is connected with Peterson and did not disclose that Peterson was linked to some of those mentioned in the story. And it was not adequately balanced with views of those opposed to the idea of a special commission, which may soon be raised in the Senate.
Altman, who said she does not speak for the group that protested to The Post, said she wanted “balance” in the story. “It was purporting to be an objective story and it read like a press release,” she said.
She wants The Post to provide additional stories, prior to the Senate taking up the issue, that highlight opposing views. That would go a long way toward establishing The Fiscal Times as a truly independent news organization, and it would help The Post to counter false claims that it’s in the tank for Peterson.
| January 11, 2010; 4:34 PM ET
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