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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

COMMENT: Papers Violate Principles to Scoop Story




In accepting a deal to tell only one side of an important story in exchange for a "scoop," editors of The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal violated fundamental principles of journalism and betrayed their readers' trust.


According to Howard Kurtz, media reporter for The Washington Post writing on May 29, "a publicist hired by United Airlines and US Airways offered three major newspapers a deal that none of them could refuse. The pitch: We'll give you the exclusive details of a $5 billion merger if you promise not to call any outsiders for comment." All three papers agreed to this censorious arrangement, which only fell apart because the Financial Times web site broke the story early, negating the agreement.


It's disturbing that a newspaper would agree to report a major story by relying entirely on one party in the story for information and comment. But the editors' explanations only made things worse. The Wall Street Journal's managing editor, Paul Steiger, claimed to "hate those kind of arrangements" (which implies that this is not the first), but explained that "if the news is big enough, we'd rather give it to our readers with whatever caveats are appropriate." But is a corporate press release without any outsider comment really "news"? And wouldn't a "big" story call for even more caution and balance, rather than a "caveat" saying that normal journalistic procedures weren't followed?


The Washington Post's financial editor Jill Dutt also put doing the story quickly ahead of balance: "It does a better job for readers to have the story on the first day than not to have the story," she contended. As a matter of fact, Dutt said, The Washington Post doesn't really need outside experts: "The Washington Post, regardless if no one is called, can give much better background and context for the significant issues involved in the deal."


And Dutt understands why corporate executives would want "a clear shot at giving investors your side of the deal before you get all the naysayers." It should go without saying that it is not a newspaper's role to facilitate companies' corporate strategy, or to protect them from "naysayers."


Dutt's bottom-line rationale for accepting the airlines' "scoop" under their restrictions was as follows: "I don't want to get beat."


New York Times business editor Glenn Kramon likewise accepted this kind of deal-making as the price for being a major player in business journalism:


"We've been serious about business news for too long to be cut out of big stories like this, and it's about time we were included." But it's no honor to be included in a race to the bottom where newspapers compete to be first through abandoning journalistic values like balance, depth and accuracy.


Kurtz is to be commended for bringing this breach of journalistic standards at major news outlets, including his own, to the public's attention. But his assessment - that the story underscores "the degree to which corporate executives, like politicians, are increasingly determined to shape coverage of their exploits" - is incomplete. Surely it's also a devastating indictment of the media outlets that accept and abet such manipulation.


FAIR, or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, is a media watchdog group. This report was reprinted from www.fair.org with FAIR's permission.