The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Journalists' conflict of interest: motes and beams

As last discussed here on July 6, hoo-ha about plagiarism is essentially misdirection for the benefit of the suckers.

Conflicts of interest can be invoked for much the same purpose, as suggested by a Washingtonian piece under the hed Wife of Post Writer Signs on With Kerry-Downie Responds by Killing His Column.

The column, by Steven Pearlstein,
advised Kerry and running mate John Edwards how to handle tort-reform legislation currently in the Senate

That Executive Editor Leonard Downie (the Washington Post's top editor) should have involved himself in the matter is suggestive: the piece does not describe how the matter crossed his desk. In particular, whether some GOP operative, having heard about Pearlstein's wife, was instrumental in getting the issue drawn to Downie's attention.

Of course, the Post's main conflict of interest, a zillion times bigger than Pearlstein's, is its utter dependence on the goodwill of USG. Hundreds of millions of dollars - conservatively - of the value of the Washington Post Co [1] will be attributable to the stories it produces from the Executive Branch. But, then, cutting the Post out completely is scarcely a practical option, even for the current administration.

But even adjustments at the margin - one or two stories apparently directed away from the paper to one of its competitors - would have an effect on the paper's prestige and the morale of its staff which would ultimately be reflected in the price of the WPC's stock.

So the paper adjusts at the margin: the history of its coverage of the Iraqi WMD, which forms part of Susan Moeller's analysis [2], illustrates how it can temper the wind to the shorn lamb: putting stories on A17, for instance.

One might compare the Euro stability pact: when tiny Portugal broke the rules of the pact, measures were taken against it; when the essential France and Germany did likewise, the pact had, in effect, to give way.

By taking ostentatious action to safeguard against trivial conflicts of interest like Pearlstein's, the media - and, in particular, the Washington Post - seek to draw attention away from the vastly larger conflicts from which they cannot escape.

  1. Which, like all statistics, is a bastard to find via Google: according to this, it was $7 billion at the end of April 2003.

  2. Search on her name for earlier pieces here, and the URL for her study.

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