Washington Post takes heat for partnership with billionaire

By Carol Eisenberg

January 12, 2010 at 9:45am

You can hardly blame conservative billionaire Peter G. Peterson for bankrolling a new news service to spotlight his pet causes – the exploding federal deficit and his belief that social security and health-care expenditures must be tamed.

The former chairman and co-founder of the Blackstone Group, after all, is filthy rich. And rich men convinced of the rightness of their own opinions have always sought to influence public opinion.

To paraphrase A.J. Liebling, freedom of the press belongs to those rich enough to own a press – translated in our times as those able to buy a web domain and fill it with content.

But the judgment by the Washington Post to run stories produced by the just-launched Fiscal Times is another matter. In particular, the decision to publish the group’s Dec. 31 story in its news section - about the purported momentum behind a bipartisan commission to address the nation’s debt - caused a major contretemps in media and policy circles.

Peter G. Peterson
Peter G. Peterson

The story has been decried as “advocacy masquerading as news by mostly liberal critics, who noted that Peterson has publicly called for reducing federal deficits and reducing the costs of entitlement programs. In 2008, he also bankrolled a movie, called I.O.U.S.A, to advance the same ideas.

“This disturbing trend toward parroting the biased views of a right-wing conservative who is using his vast wealth to buy public opinion on an issue critical to millions of Americans is yet another indication of the advancing deterioration of credible and trustworthy news reporting,” complained Barbara B. Kennelly, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

The Post and The Fiscal Times defend the story, saying it was written and edited by seasoned and reputable journalists, with no personal involvement by Peterson whatsoever.

Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander said that The Fiscal Times is one of the nontraditional news organizations: that The Post and other media outlets have partnered with “to bolster coverage diminished by staff reductions.”

He recounted how Peterson assured him that he funded the group “with no strings attached,” and that he had no knowledge of the story. But Andrews went on to acknowledge the story had “serious deficiencies,” starting with its failure to disclose The Fiscal Times was created and funded by Peterson, and detailing his specific interest in the issues addressed.

It also quoted the Concord Commission, but never noted that Peterson had co-founded and bankrolled that group as well. Andrews also admitted that the story was not “sufficiently balanced with the views of those opposed to a fast-track commission.”

But the ombudsman does not address the fundamental question about whether it is ever appropriate to partner with an organization founded - and funded - by someone identified with a particular policy perspective.

Writing for the liberal American Prospect, Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wondered what would happen if the National Rifle Association started the Firearms Gazette or if 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,” Baker wrote. “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.

“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.”

The question, though, is whether any of these new not-for-profit news organizations could be said to have no axe to grind. If ProPublica, for instance, produced a story that ran afoul of the interests of Herbert and Marion Sandler – its primary funders– would that organization’s editorial freedom limited? Or if Kaiser Health News produced stories antithetical to the interests of the Kaiser Family Foundation, would its wings be clipped?

The verdict is not yet in.

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  • #1.   Richard Hodgens 01.13.2010

    What did the Post gain or receive from running the Fiscal Times story?

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