Are Interest Groups Blurring Media Lines?

D.C. ASBPE cohosts event examining ethical considerations arising from growth of interest-group media. National Press Club, January 12, 2005
Did community newspaper publisher Brian Timpone cross an ethical line by failing to disclose to the readers of the Madison County Record that his publication was financed by a business trade group with a pro-tort-reform agenda?
That was the question that moderator Robert Freedman, ASBPE president, posed to Timpone and others on a panel at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that was carried live on the C-SPAN2 television network.
The panelists’ candid responses, given under the glare of camera lights, only seemed to harden their opinions — and the opinions of the attendees in the filled-to-capacity meeting room.
To Peter Banks, president of the Society of National Association Publications, Timpone’s decision not to disclose that his publication was financed by the Chamber of Commerce violated the trust that must exist between a publication and its readers.
Timpone explained he opted not to disclose that the Madison County Record was affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce because he feared that the public would not give his publication a chance. He added that, as publisher, he has control over the publication’s content and does not discuss story ideas with the Chamber of Commerce. “We cover every civil case that is filed in the courthouse in Madison County in which the damages are over $50,000,” Timpone said. He added that “people in Madison County like the paper and trust it.”
But to Willie Schatz of the Society of Professional Journalists, Timpone’s explanation did not pass muster. “You needed to trust your readers more,” Schatz said. He said that there can be no compromise on the issue of disclosure. “It would have been more ethical if the Madison County Record disclosed its relationship with the Chamber up front.”
Timpone countered the criticism by asking why his publication should be subject to a disclosure requirement that is not applied to other media outlets. A former newscaster, Timpone, said that for years the objectivity of news programs on CBS and NBC have been taken for granted despite his belief that both NBC’s Katie Couric and CBS’s Dan Rather are extremely liberal.
Other panelists pointed out that there is no disclosure within the pages of the Washington Times that the publication is owned by Rev. Sung Young Moon, who many believe has a conservative agenda.
Timpone said it was the “bias” shown by his hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in giving scant coverage of the booming civil litigation awards in Madison County that created a void he believes his publication is filling. “We are breaking more stories on civil litigation than the St. Louis Post Dispatch does now.”
Interest-group supported media, such as the Madison County Record, can provide a useful filter for news consumers who have a particular viewpoint, Ken Deutsch, executive vice president of Issue Dynamics, Inc., in Washington, D.C., said. The public relations executive explained that he believes people are now overwhelmed with information and are looking for editors to serve as gatekeepers of the information they receive. He noted that people often want to hear information from a certain organization. “Folks who watch FOX news know what they are getting — conservatives,” Deutsch said.
But for Patrick Chisholm, a columnist for Christian Science Monitor Online, the rise of interest-group driven media represents a troubling trend towards further polarization within American media. To Chisholm, three factors are fueling the trend:

  • Producing news publications has never been easier with the rise of low-cost technologies such as Internet-based blogs.
  • Conservatives continue to feel that they are not given a fair shot in the media.
  • Campaign finance reform has significantly limited the options of interest groups trying to get their message out — and not just during elections.

While describing some of the ethical concerns raised by the rise of interest-group–driven media came easily to the panelists, they had a difficult time trying to think of a means of resolving the issue. Timpone and SPJ’s Schatz were united in their opposition the government regulation of journalists. Timpone went a step further by disputing the notion that journalists need special training. “If you look back in history, some of the greatest reporters never went to college at all,” he said.
For Timpone the bottom line is the quality of the publication. “Who owns the publication isn’t an indication of its quality,” Timpone said.
Agreeing that a publication’s survival is generally determined by market forces, the Christian Science Monitor’s Chisholm hoped that someday a market would arise for balanced news coverage.
The panel was hosted by the D.C. chapter of ASBPE, the Society of National Association Publications, and the D.C. Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.