The Fiscal Times: The future is now

About 20 years ago, I was talking to an advertising executive who had just started work at National Journal, the weekly magazine for which I wrote, when she asked with a smile, “So, are you going to write some good stories for my advertisers?”

I was, of course, appalled – as would be any journalist who believed in the traditional “fire wall” between the news and financial sides of a media endeavor. I reported the conversation to a higher-up, if only to receive assurance that things at National Journal weren’t changing for the worse.

Tension between the news and business sides of a media operation are nothing new.  The former hunts for news; the latter for advertisers and subscribers to make the operation financially viable. As the business side struggles, the temptation to use the news side in ethically challenged ways grows. More than a few newspapers, magazines and TV and radio networks have succumbed over the years.

All of which brings us to the flap over the Washington Post’s arrangement with a start-up, The Fiscal Times, a venture funded by billionaire Pete Peterson to produce news and commentary on fiscal policy and related issues.

The Fiscal Times has a stellar ensemble of editors and reporters who include Editor-in-Chief Jackie Leo (who held that job at Reader’s Digest), Washington Editor Eric Pianin (a former editor and budget reporter at the Washington Post), Ann Reilly Dowd (a former Washington Bureau Chief at Fortune and Money), and Dan Morgan (a former Washington Post investigative and congressional reporter).

Its advisory board includes such fiscal notables as former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert Reischauer, who’s now President of the Urban Institute; Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman; and CIGNA’s Bill Hoagland, the former longtime Staff Director of the Senate Budget Committee and, later, adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The Fiscal Times also is gathering an ideologically diverse contingent of fiscal experts to write commentary.

On December 31, the Washington Post printed a Fiscal Times story about growing support in Washington for a budget “commission” to craft spending and tax changes with which policymakers could address the spiraling federal deficit. “This article,” a tagline said, “was produced by the Fiscal Times, an independent digital news publication reporting on fiscal, budgetary, health-care and international economics issues.”

Progressives erupted with fury, outraged that the Post would ink a publishing arrangement with a Peterson-funded venture. Peterson, they noted, was a fiscal “hawk” who strongly supports a commission and pushes for deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare that, they believe, would jeopardize those programs.

Before considering this case, let’s be clear: Controversy about these kinds of journalistic practices will grow more common in the coming years. The Fiscal Times is less an unusual case than a variation on a growing theme.

For example, ProPublica, which calls itself an “independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest,” began operating two years ago and now has a team of 32 journalists – led by Editor-in-Chief Paul Steiger, the former Managing Editor of the Wall Street Journal, and Managing Editor Steve Engelberg, a former New York Times reporter.

The outfit is funded largely by the Sandler Foundation and its president, Herbert Sandler, chairs ProPublica’s board. ProPublica encourages others (e.g., newspapers) to print its work and asks only that they attribute it properly.

Kaiser Health Network, a project of the Kaiser Family Foundation, calls itself a “nonprofit news organization committed to in-depth coverage of health care policy and politics.” With a team led by Executive Editor Laurie McGinley, a former Wall Street Journal health care policy correspondent, Kaiser operates similarly to ProPublica, offering its content for free and asking only attribution in return.

Traditional newspapers are bleeding to death. Many have closed or gone solely online, others are barely holding on. They suffer from the current economic doldrums, which has severely reduced advertising, and, more broadly, from the reality that fewer people will pay for content when they can get so much online for free.

Sensing an opportunity, well-heeled individuals or organizations are creating their own news ventures, offering content for free. They hope to bring attention to, and shape debate on, vital public issues.

How, then, should we evaluate these ventures? As we would any media endeavor: (1) by reading the product and deciding whether its “sugar daddy” has used the leverage of his or her funding to shape the news content, and (2) by judging whether the entity is operating as transparently as possible.

In the Washington PostThe Fiscal Times case, the critics stand on shaky ground on the first test, more solid ground on the second.

The critics believe the story was unbalanced, perhaps because they themselves are strongly opposed to a budget commission, do not see the exploding deficit as a serious risk to the economy and, thus, do not view the soaring growth of federal retirement and health programs that are driving the deficit as a problem.

The story’s main point – that support for a commission is growing – is surely true. Balancing that point, however, the story gives voice to skepticism that a commission would work, makes reference to earlier commissions that have failed and notes the sheer intractability of budget issues.

On the second test, that of transparency, the Washington Post and Fiscal Times left themselves open to criticism. As the Post’s ombudsman concluded, the tagline did not mention Peterson and his relevant policy interests. Nor did the story mention that the Concord Coalition, whose leader was quoted in the piece, receives funding from Peterson. Nor did the story mention that the same Peterson is behind the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, whose data the story also cited.

But sloppiness on the transparency front is one thing, calculated content-skewing is quite another. The Fiscal Times and its media partners will get better on the former. On the latter, I do not expect Leo, Pianin and company to allow Peterson or anyone else to tell them how to report the news.