Overseeing the public interest

Last week, in a statement that quickly went viral, a Washington-based anchor for the Russia Today television network resigned on air. Leslie Wahl spoke of the “many ethical and moral challenges” she faced at the network and explained that as a descendant of refugees who had fled Soviet forces in the Hungarian revolution, she could no longer maintain the polite fiction of journalistic independence while working for a news agency “funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of [President Vladimir] Putin.”

At almost the same time that Wahl took her leave of the Russian network, the online news service PandoDaily revealed that an important PBS documentary series on US pensions had been funded by the former Enron trader John Arnold, a man whom their exposé described as “a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.” Cleverly headlined as ‘The Wolf of Sesame Street’ the report of “secret corruption inside PBS’s news division” raised important questions about the extent to which modern news is swayed by the people and organizations that fund its distribution.

During the same week, PandoDaily reported on a conflict of interest in billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s financial support for the Ukrainian opposition. Omidyar recently started a news agency with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – who broke the Edward Snowden story – and Jeremy Scahill, a leading investigative journalist. The Intercept, a national security blog that began publishing last month is the first publication of their joint venture. Mark Ames, the PandoDaily reporter called his disclosures “journalistic conflict-of-interest of the worst kind: Omidyar working hand-in-glove with US foreign policy agencies to interfere in foreign governments … while at the same time hiring a growing team of soi-disant ‘independent journalists’ which vows to investigate the behavior of the US government at home and overseas, and boasts of its uniquely ‘adversarial’ relationship towards these government institutions.”

Each of these stories raises serious questions about the integrity of the news agencies most of us rely on. And each of them comes with important caveats. While it is true that PBS does not produce its own material – apart from its prestigious news broadcasts – but distributes work from its independent member stations, its failure to acknowledge the exclusive sponsorship of an interested party in a documentary on such an important matter clearly fails to satisfy the network’s standards about appearing to function with complete independence. Similarly, although it’s a stretch to imagine that Greenwald and his colleagues would accommodate the opinions of a wealthy investor, Ames’s question has to be asked. In an appropriately ironic twist, shortly after Greenwald dismissed suggestions of Omidyar’s influence in a comprehensive rebuttal, a reader noticed Greenwald had made a similar argument about media owners’ influence a few years ago.

The most telling difference between these stories may be the way they were broken and the response they received. Russia Today would not have allowed debate on its editorial strictures regarding the situation in Crimea – so its anchor relied on surprise, and a speedy departure. PBS, by contrast, issued public statements, refunded the sponsors’ money and dealt with its lapses directly. Likewise, Glenn Greenwald was able to publish a lengthy response to his site’s alleged conflict-of-interest without needing to clear the response with anyone, Pierre Omidyar included.

When media organizations respond to their failings transparently, their reputations for journalistic integrity usually remain intact. Conversely, when they ignore charges of inaccurate reporting, or allegations of being swayed by corporate or political influence –  as with the Murdoch-owned UK tabloids, or the New York Times reluctance to acknowledge its editorial miscalculations prior to the 2003  US invasion of Iraq – public trust can be lost for years. In today’s fast-changing media landscape it seems inevitable that the increased involvement of wealthy men and powerful organizations with complicated affiliations will require increased vigilance about who is really acting in the public interest. What these three recent news stories show is that the response to questions of editorial independence is almost as important as the questions themselves.

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