Conversation with Dan Diamond about journalism and conflicts of interest

This is an email dialogue I had with Dan Diamond of POLITICO about conflicts of interest in journalism, think tanks, and universities. He’s one of our best health journalists and has a great podcast on health policy.

Bill: I want to ask you about how conflicts of interest are handled in journalism. A conflict of interest is a situation where someone who has a duty to act on behalf of the public also has a potentially conflicting interest to act on their own behalf.  I was struck, however, that at the top of your newsletter it says “Presented by PhRMA”, which is the trade and lobbying organization of the US pharmaceutical industry.

So, do you view PhRMA’s sponsorship as a potential conflict of interest?

DD: Only in the same vein as a TV commercial during the nightly news, or even an ad in the corner of a newspaper. So, no.

It might be helpful to explain how our newsletter — PULSE — gets put together. It’s embarrassingly low-tech; at any given point, I keep five-to-ten Microsoft Word documents, each devoted to an upcoming day’s issue. If I know that there’s a big cancer summit on Aug. 24, say, I’ll be working on news and tidbits for days, so when the night of Aug. 23 comes around, I’ve already got a chunk of it done.

What that means is that I’m crafting each issue with zero knowledge of who’s “presenting” it. Even the test email that I send to the editors to review doesn’t have the ad language attached. I suppose I could sleuth it out, but it’s just background noise to me — and it’s never, ever been a factor in what we write.

This is a newsroom-wide edict. At POLITICO, editorial is totally separate from the creation of ads, placement of ads, etc. That’s up to our business side. And not to pick on PhRMA, but we’ve written a number of tough stories in the past month alone about the drug industry. I’d bet that any sponsor could list recent stories that made them mad.

I know conflicts of interest are real. One reason I walked away from an otherwise great gig at a consulting firm and happily took a pay cut to join POLITICO was because I kept getting pushed into collisions between revenue and content — and that’s never ever ever the case here. My editors are among the most moral and fair people I’ve ever known, and POLITICO has more than exceeded expectations.

Bill: I am not sure that “Only in the same vein as a TV commercial” answers my question. When I see an advertisement for a medication during a TV news program, I wonder how willing the network will be to bite the hand that feeds them, particularly when journalism is suffering an economic crisis.

It’s important that you do not see the heading of your article and do not know that it says “Presented by PhRMA”. That’s a good thing — it helps preserve your independence as a journalist. However, I see that heading. And when I see it I assumed — albeit without thinking about it — that you knew about PhRMA’s sponsorship of your column. So although POLITICO has disclosed the sponsorship, I misunderstood how that sponsorship works. So I wonder: are there more effective ways to communicate your independence from your sponsor?

DD: All I can speak to is what I’ve seen at POLITICO — which is that no one bats an eye when we annoy the White House, both candidates, and every corner of the health care industry.

That ethical commitment goes beyond dinging sponsors, too. I recently interviewed an incredibly important business leader … but my editor wasn’t convinced that it wouldn’t just be a puff piece. Instead of the full story I’d planned, it became a small item in the newsletter. At most outlets, an exclusive interview with this person would have warranted a standalone story, at least for the clicks.

POLITICO is somewhat insulated from the economic pressures of news and the temptation for clickbait because of the Pro business, our high-end subscription model. Here’s an example of what I mean. I wrote a story last week on Tim Kaine’s health care record, which was sent by email to our Pro readers. There are no ads on that story — it doesn’t matter if 5,000 people or 50,000 people read it. The only goal is to deliver value for our readers.

Because of our internal firewall between business and editorial, I don’t think it’s my place to discuss where an email advertisement should go. The business team doesn’t tell me how to do my job, so I shouldn’t start advising them on theirs. (I’d be interested in what you or TIE readers come up with, but it hasn’t been an issue for me.)

Can I be honest? To me, the most interesting thing about conflict of interest in media isn’t a four-word promo in an email subject line. It’s all the buried conflicts that we don’t see. Don’t you ever wonder how certain outlets land key exclusives? Or why some experts seem to get cited more than others?

Bill: Dan, you’ve convinced me – let’s stipulate that POLITICO has a working internal firewall.

To translate the firewall principle into the jargon of my world, the idea is that journalists should be blinded concerning where the funding for their work comes from. That’s a powerful idea. Unfortunately, I don’t think we could make it work in science. Scientists know exactly where grant funds came from, because we have to find them. To my surprise, our conversation has raised my (already strong) concerns about conflicts of interest in science.

Nevertheless, although I expect that most news enterprises will say that they have a firewall, but I’m skeptical whether they all do. Occasionally you see evidence of a broken firewall, as when Mickey Kaus left The Daily Caller because Tucker Carlson would not allow him to criticize Fox News.

So how can we make firewalls stronger? Hypothesis: There will be more organizational commitment to a firewall when there is more transparency about where the organization’s revenue comes from. To that end, should news organizations do more to make their patronage visible? For example, suppose there was a POLITICO webpage that allowed me to view a list of every advertiser in the last year. Would this help?

DD: I think you’re on to an interesting idea, but I doubt it would be helpful and worry it would be damaging. Largely because I don’t think the situations are analogous.

Here’s the immediate difference. Researchers are the ones applying for grants, which directly pay for their subsequent research. Journalists aren’t out shilling for ads; our business department handles that.

So again, I’m completely insulated from POLITICO’s finances. As usual, I wrote an issue of the PULSE newsletter today with zero knowledge of where the dollars for my salary come from. Imagine if you’re a researcher and your university simply awards you $100,000 every year, no strings attached, and says, go research whatever you want. That’s the best proxy.

And that gets to a second key point: The number of funding sources is wildly different.

My understanding is that many researchers are funded by a relatively small number of grants, and it can be significant to lose one. (Please tell me if I’m wrong.)

Most national news outlets have a thousand-and-one funders — the companies placing ads, the organizations sponsoring events, the foundations paying for some of the journalism, etc. To say nothing of the subscribers, who represent the bulk of the revenue at a place like POLITICO.

That means every defection is relatively insulated, and an About Our Funders page would imply links that don’t exist. I could see some critic, unhappy over a Wall Street Journal story that praises McDonald’s for making its menu healthier, finding an old $2,000 ad buy and drawing the wrong conclusion.

And where do you draw the line? I’m a long-time subscriber to The New York Times and have paid them thousands of dollars over the years. Should I be listed on their About Our Funders page?

I can think of a few exceptions. First, if there was some incredible ad buy — if the NFL bought 10% of the ads on ESPN — that should be disclosed. Second, if a news organization is privately held and tries to influence coverage, and even then, it comes out fairly quickly. Third, if it’s a local outlet, with relatively few sources of income and trying its best to stay afloat.

Good journalists tend to be the best check on bad journalism. And luckily, there are many of them. Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year, and there was an immediate deluge of stories about all of the havoc he’s wreaked on the newsroom. The aforementioned ESPN’s coziness with the NFL has been well-documented.

Can you give me a high-profile example of the firewall failing at a national news outlet? Forgive me for not panicking, but a trouble-seeking blogger quitting an outlet with accuracy problems isn’t a signal that journalism is in trouble. Paul Krugman or Catherine Rampell being banned from writing about a topic would be.

We started emailing a week ago, and since then, The New York Times has run several articles about the conflicts of interest at think tanks. To me, that’s a much bigger problem than an ad buy at a newspaper. The think tanks purport to be independent and use their influence to shape national policy. But they don’t advertise that their fellows essentially draw their primary salaries directly from corporations. We had to find out from a newspaper — one that Brookings et al have surely advertised in before.

Bill: You’ve convinced me, Dan. My idea is likely infeasible and it might do more harm than good.

I don’t have a case of a news organization compromised by an advertiser. What comes to mind is the story in Spotlight about the Boston Globe and sexual abuse by Catholic priests. One of the questions raised in the movie is how much the Globe knew before Marty Baron arrived. In the movie, Cardinal Law believes that he can talk to the Editor (or the police, or a judge…) and get a story killed. I raise this point only to show how journalism can be compromised (but clearly my suggestion wouldn’t address this specific problem).

So I’m not wholly reassured. “Good journalists tend to be the best check on bad journalism.” That’s exactly how researchers responded when people raised questions about conflicts of interest in science. I don’t think that scientists should be the only judges of themselves and similarly with think tank scholars. I’ll end by asking the readers: What’s your view? How commonly do conflicts of interest lead to biased journalism? What, if anything, should be done about it?

DD: You raise fair criticism too! (Though I’d gently point out that Spotlight is a dramatic representation of real-world events, and not a documentary.)

I don’t want to be a starry-eyed defender of journalism — the scrutiny is good. I just think these questions illuminate some misunderstandings around how it works, at least at a place like POLITICO.

Mistakes happen. Constantly. One editor might nix a story idea because he doesn’t like the topic. I’ve ignored tips because I was pressed for time or didn’t understand the issue. And that’s where the economic pressures of journalism really matter, I think. The hamster wheel forces faster stories and less consideration. A bigger newsroom with more tenured reporters has more time and experience to ask the right questions.

Meanwhile, non-traditional outlets are rushing to plug the gap. Think tanks. Consulting firms. Internet startups. They’re all pouring out content and analysis, and while some of it is very good, they’re under no obligation to follow the rules of journalism.

Is that a problem? I’ll share a few examples, and the readers can decide.

I’m a fan of Bill Simmons, but his new website is jammed with conflicts of interest. The site’s wildly popular politics podcast is hosted by two former Obama administration officials who do contortions to avoid criticizing the Clinton campaign. The site’s TV critics are paid to appear on TV shows by the networks they review. I appreciate that they acknowledge it, but that tilts the scale toward entertainment, not journalism.

Other conflicts are subtler and pernicious. If you publish a glowing interview with a controversial hospital CEO — and celebrate him as a visionary while ignoring that he’s being sued by the Justice Department for allegedly ordering doctors to admit more patients — you need to make clear that he’s a client and it’s not journalism. (Preferably before you send it to 200,000 people across health care.)

You ask about solutions. I can think of a handful.

  • Every major outlet would employ someone like Margaret Sullivan — the incredible New York Times public editor, who recently moved to the Washington Post — who could serve as reader advocate and quiz reporters and editors about the choices they made.
  • Journalists would be strongly limited from relying on anonymous, blinded sources in their reporting.
  • Meanwhile, organizations like Brookings should require their fellows to disclose their sources of funding, much like academic journals. They also should state their conflicts up front.

I’ll end here, too. Readers, what am I missing?



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