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Whither Journalistic Ethics?

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Why Politico has fallen short in its coverage of spectrum issues.

On October 15, 2011, Jim VandeHei, executive editor and co-founder of Politico, spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy about the business success and high journalistic ethical standards of Politico.

During the Q&A, I asked him about about the relationship between Politico's parent company, Allbritton Communications, and Politco's coverage of spectrum issues. Allbritton owns 7 local TV stations, including the ABC affiliate in Washington, DC. Spectrum licenses are arguably the company's most valuable asset, and it has a very aggressive spectrum lobbyist, Jerry Fritz, Vice President for Legal & Strategic Affairs, who has served on the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Board and testified on its behalf before Congress. He is also very active in spectrum lobbying on behalf of broadcasters on the Hill and at the FCC.

I mentioned to VandeHei that Politico ran a front page puff piece on NAB President Gordon Smith ("Former senator Gordon Smith changes channel to TV's woes," June 1, 2011) and had published two high profile stories on incentive auctions (see "Lawmakers pan spectrum reform in debt bill," July 27, 2011, "Tech cash floods debt panel," September 11, 2011, and, an opinion piece, "Spectrum auction would be a winner," October 11, 2011). However, in conflict with journalistic ethics, Politico did not mention this conflict of interest in the two articles on incentive auctions. It did mention in the Gordon Smith article that Allbittron Communications is an "affiliate" of Politico but then misstated and underplayed the relationship, saying Allbittron only "owns several television stations across the country" (it owns seven and they are the most valuable asset of Politico's parent company).

VandeHei replied with an anecdote that Politico had carefully considered such a disclosure when it covered the NBC merger with Comcast because one of its local TV stations is an NBC affiliate. But this response didn't directly address my question. Moreover, an affiliate's relationship with a network is a relatively trivial economic issue for Allbritton in comparison to the spectrum issues it has been reporting on. As much as 80% of Allbritton's assets are in the form of spectrum licenses whereas the network affiliation agreement is probably worth well under 10%.

VandeHei's final response to me was that he couldn't reply until he had checked into the details of the Politico articles I cited. But he didn't dispute that journalistic ethics required such a disclosure and that he was committed to high journalistic standards for Politico.

Now we have yet another high profile Politico story on this subject without a conflict of interest disclosure ("Spectrum feud lands before supercommittee," October 24, 2011). The story itself is reasonably balanced (as well as well-written). One major substantive flaw is to use lobbying and campaign contribution expenditures to evaluate the relative political strength of the broadcast lobby versus its opponents, when any informed insider, including many senior Allbritton executives, would confidentially tell you the power of the broadcast lobby comes from its ability to intimidate members of Congress who depend on their local broadcasters both to get their message out and for an insurance policy against negative coverage .

The article vaguely hints at this political logic in its observation about local TV stations and political ads, but that is obviously a sideshow compared to the local broadcasters' ability to control local TV news, which members of Congress live or die by.

Another substantive flaw with this and the other articles is that they don't clearly convey that one of the most important and unresolved features of incentive auctions is what percentage of the proceeds will go to the public versus the broadcasters. The high-tech and mobile telephone industries could care less how much money the public gets for broadcasters' use of the public airwaves. They just want access to the spectrum to sell lots of wireless gadgets and new services to their customers. If the price is that the public is ripped off so that the broadcasters receive a corporate welfare windfall, it's no skin off their backs. They still get what they want.

Leaving aside the question of the actual content of Politico's spectrum policy articles, Politico's remarkably poor job of disclosing its own corporate conflicts in covering spectrum issues has practical consequences. Most notably, it serves to send a message of intimidation to Hill staff. The message is that media owners can use their control of the media to both lobby and reward friends/punish enemies without political accountability. The reason that every widely accepted code of journalistic ethics mandates that key conflicts of interest, such as Politico's spectrum interests, must be disclosed is to prevent just this type of misuse of power. The integrity of the journalistic enterprise depends on it.

Addendum

If you oppose spectrum giveaways at public expense, please sign the petition against spectrum giveaways on the White House petition website.


This is my third Huffington Post commentary on the proposed spectrum giveaway to the TV broadcasters that the White House, Congress, the FCC, and NTIA have either implicitly or explicitly endorsed. This one looked at media coverage of the giveaway. The previous two focused on the White House (Soaking the Rich in Obama's Jobs Plan?) and the broadcast lobby (The Broadcast Industry's Free TV Scam Redux). I hope to write another one on Congress.