On Thursday, December 31, the last day of 2009, The Washington Post published an article, presented as a news story, which could be a signal of the death of the Post as an independent and objective news source. The piece, entitled "Support grows for tackling nation's debt," appeared to be one of those background news pieces common in newspapers like the Post. But the article was written not by the newspaper's reporters - and not by an objective wire service, like the Associated Press - but by a new organization called the Fiscal Times, whose founder and major backer, Peter G. Peterson, has a long term ideological commitment to convincing Americans that "support is growing for tackling the nation's debt."
These are indeed hard times for journalism, but the Washington Post is sealing its own fate as a fake news source if, as the press release for the Fiscal Times claims, this new "independent" digital news publication reporting on fiscal, budgetary, health-care and international economics issues has forged its first media partnership, a content sharing agreement with The Washington Post. This deal, the first evidence of which is Thursday's article, is the equivalent of the Post reviving its old relationship with United Press International to cover religion and politics - without informing their readership that since 2000 the once-proud UPI has been owned by News World Communications, a media company owned by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church! The only difference is that Peter G. Peterson is starting his own news service instead of buying an old one.
Economist and media critic Dean Baker was the first to blow the whistle in his Beat the Press blog at The American Prospect website:
The piece [by Fiscal Times and published by the Post] conveys Peterson's view that there is a drastic budget crisis which requires circumventing normal congressional procedures. It implies that the huge surge in deficit in the last year was attributable to the irresponsibility of Congress rather than an economic collapse that resulted from incredibly incompetent policy and Wall Street greed.
The amazing thing is that, given the desire of the new Fiscal Times (and presumably the Post) to present their new partnership as an objective and journalistic endeavor, the actual article is so obviously slanted to the conservative point of view Peter G. Peterson (partner in Wall Street's Blackstone Group and former Republican Treasury Secretary) has used his millions to promote over many years. Nowhere in the "story" would the reader find reference to the fact that it is now official government policy to increase the federal deficit in order to stimulate growth and economic recovery from the worst recession since the great depression. The whole piece seems designed to give prominence to the legislation, advanced by Senators Conrad and Greg, that would create a commission to come up with a plan for slashing deficits which would be voted on - without amendments and with limited debate - by both houses of Congress. No mention is made of the fact that Pete Peterson recently testified in favor of such a commission before Senator Conrad's Budget committee. The piece contains one quote from a high level official at the AARP questioning whether such a commission would be willing to consider progressive tax increases. But nowhere in the Fiscal Times article could a reader find that over 40 national organizations - including the Alliance for Retired Americans, the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME and the Campaign for America's Future - have circulated a statement opposing such a commission and warning that it could undermine Social Security, Medicare, health care reform, and the fragile economic recovery.
The Fiscal Times piece does quote the "the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform" (funded by Pete Peterson's foundation). And the executive director of the Concord Coalition is quoted as noting rising support for action on the deficit - without noting that one Peter G. Peterson serves as president of the Concord Coalition. This is not journalism. It is big money purchasing a relationship that allows Peterson to put faux news pieces into the Washington Post news pages.
In July, the Washington Post's Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, admitted that his publisher's "ill-fated plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record 'salons' was an ethical lapse of monumental proportions." When Katharine Weymouth and Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli realized how horrendous a PR problem they had on their hands, they apologized and rescinded their plans for "a series of 11 intimate dinners to discuss public policy issues - at which for a fee of up to $25,000, underwriters were guaranteed a seat at the table with lawmakers, administration officials, think tank experts, business leaders and the heads of associations." Obviously, the program looked too much like "pay to influence coverage."
But Peter Peterson has found a better way: not content with advocacy, he is using his vast wealth to create a "news service" and forged a deal to get the Post to treat his advocacy as news.
A group of policy experts and advocates, led by author Nancy Altman (and myself) has just sent a letter to Andrew Alexander, who still appears to be the Post's ombudsman. He has another ethical hot potato on his hands - but this one goes to the heart of the journalistic mission of the Post.
Our letter, which can be found here, awaits a response from the Washington Post. If you care about journalism - and if you care about this important Washington newspaper, you should make your views known to the Post at firstname.lastname@example.org.