May 22, 2018
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News with a Spin

The Washington Post stubbed its toe recently with its publication of an article produced by a new digital news service, The Fiscal Times. Although The Post published a correction, and its ombudsman has run two lengthy comments, the incident remains a cautionary tale about the changing news business.

The article, published on Dec. 31, was the first product in a partnership between The Post and The Fiscal Times, which bills itself as an independent news publication “devoted to quality reporting on vital fiscal, budgetary, health care and international economic issues.”

The article told of momentum favoring a proposal for appointment of a special commission on reducing the national debt. The writers were generally respected Washington journalists. But the story led to “a withering assault” on the Post’s integrity, said the paper’s ombudsman. He rejected the charge that it had passed along propaganda as news but acknowledged that the Post was “paying the price for a glaring lack of transparency.”

The immediate problem was that the article had omitted the fact that The Fiscal Times was founded and financed by Peter G. Peterson, a billionaire investment banker who has long advocated deficit reduction and has sought privatization of the Social Security system. Nor did the article note that Mr. Peterson also funds the Concord Coalition, an anti-deficit think tank quoted as supporting the proposal.

A more serious complaint was raised by 21 policy specialists who said that the article ignored the views of opponents, misstated the views of the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as favoring “fast track” action on the commission, and omitting that Chairman Max Baucus of the Senate Finance Committee strongly opposes the proposal.

One member of the group said, “It was purporting to be an objective story and it read like a press release.”

Whether or not Fiscal Times can do better in the future, the fact remains that the news business is in a new ballgame. Printed newspapers are losing circulation and advertising. They have cut staffs and need copy to fill their pages. And a slew of startup news services stand ready to supply news.

The newcomers are generally financed by rich people, some with obvious interests and biases on the left or right, others simply by a desire to supply straight and reliable news. Tucker Carlson’s new Daily Caller, funded by a wealthy Republican donor, looks to be in the first category. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, backed by former owners of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is in the latter class. Pro-Publica, backed by Democratic donors, and Politico, owned by the Republican-connected Albritton family, seem to let the chips fall where they may.

Newspapers and readers should watch out for bias in these new online news organizations, keeping in mind, though, that one person’s bias can be another’s objectivity.

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