Jan
13
2010

WaPo Ombud Responds on Fiscal Times

Alexander denies article was 'propaganda,' but acknowledges flaws

Responding to complaints by FAIR activists and others (FAIR Action Alert, 1/6/10), Washington Post ombud Andy Alexander (1/10/10) denied that a Post article (12/31/09) underwritten by an anti-Social Security crusader constituted "propaganda," but he acknowledged that the piece contained serious flaws.

The Post had come under fire for running a piece from the Fiscal Times, a for-profit news outlet launched by Peter Peterson, a billionaire who has spent millions promoting cuts in entitlement spending (Extra!, 3-4/97). Alexander maintained that it was "false" to say that by publishing the Fiscal Times story--about the possible creation of a bipartisan commission that would recommend cuts in entitlement programs--the Post "took special-interest 'propaganda' and passed it off as a news story."

Alexander reported that "the story idea came from Post editors, not the Fiscal Times," and quoted the Post's economic editor as saying, "We had complete and utter control." The ombud said he was assured by Peterson that his money went to the Fiscal Times "with no strings attached" and that neither he nor his son (who is also involved with the project) would "influence nor in any way be involved in decisions about editorial content."

The Post ombud did, however, criticize the paper for a "glaring lack of transparency with its readers" by not disclosing the Fiscal Times' connection to Peterson and his interest in the issues it covers, as well as his financing of the Concord Coalition and the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, both of which were cited in the piece without disclosure.

Alexander said that "the story also was not sufficiently balanced with the views of those opposed to a fast-track commission," and that "having its first story focused on one so closely tied to Peterson was inviting suspicion about its motives."

As Alexander's last comment suggests, when an individual who has spent a great deal of money to advance a clear ideological agenda on a particular issue establishes a news outlet to cover that same issue, and that outlet produces a story citing its owner's advocacy groups in support of the owner's goals while failing to cite his critics, one might well be suspicious of the motives--of the owner, of the journalists who write for him and of any other news outlet that republishes such work. While Alexander rejects "propaganda" as a proper label for the Fiscal Times piece, it's unclear how an article that explicitly set out to advance Peterson's political objectives would have differed from the piece that appeared in the Post.

Economists Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 1/9/10) and Brad DeLong (Grasping Reality with Opposable Thumbs, 1/10/10) both had pointed responses to Alexander's defense of the Post's use of the Fiscal Times.

Our thanks to Alexander for taking up the issue and to all the media activists who wrote to urge him to do so.