How disgusted should we be by the latest ethical lapse at ‘The Washington Post’?

Just before the new year, The Washington Post published the first piece to come out of its partnership with the “new independent digital news publicationThe Fiscal Times (TFT). By 7 a.m. that morning, Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, argued that in publishing the piece The Washington Post had ceased to exist as “a serious newspaper,” and subsequently over a dozen wonks and academics called for the Post to end its partnership with the “propaganda arm for ideologues.” 

Why all the hubbub? The piece presents itself as a story about “a proposal to appoint a special commission” that would tackle “skyrocketing spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security” and to “reform the tax code,” which is in fact a proposal being discussed in Congress. But nowhere in the piece—nor before, nor after—is it disclosed that TFT is funded by the Peterson Foundation, the creation of former Wall Street CEO and billionaire Pete Peterson, who has made reducing the national debt his hobbyhorse for the past 30 years. Although TFT is a limited liability corporation that is officially separate and independent of the Peterson Foundation, it’s hard to fully trust that separation when its first piece so fully embraced its patron’s idée fixe. Indeed, David Walker, the president and CEO of the Peterson Foundation, testified before Congress in support of the idea on November 10.

In addition to the dubious topic choice, writers Elaine S. Povich and Eric Pianin cited not just one but two Peterson-funded organizations in support of their point that entitlements and the deficit are receiving growing attention on the Hill. The first comes in a quote from Richard L. Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, “a nonpartisan group that advocates entitlement reform and balanced budgets”: “I think there’s more interest in the proposal not only in Congress but at the White House because there’s a growing realization the deficit and the debt are reaching such levels they can’t be ignored any longer.” The Concord Coalition—as a correction that ran yesterday in the Post, almost a week since the original publication, explained—receives funding from Peterson’s foundation. The authors also include a study by the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform to prove the rise in public debt, a group launched by the Peterson Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

All of which points to a strong Peterson influence over TFT. But the folks at TFT disagree—strongly.

Pianin, who is also TFT’s Washington editor, explained to me that he was aware of the buzz surrounding the piece but refused to give the claims any legitimacy. “Apart from an occasional conversation with Pete Peterson when I’m in New York, there really isn’t any daily contact. He’s not, in any way—I can’t stress this too much—involved in the daily decision making and news gathering that goes on or that will be going on.” Pianin explained that he and editor-in-chief Jackie Leo have full control over the organization’s editorial content that will be featured in the Post and on their website, which will launch later this month. Pianin compared their corporate firewall to those of other news services like Kaiser Health News and ProPublica, both of which have shared content with other big news outlets. (Full disclosure: TNR senior editor Jonathan Cohn contributes a regular column to KHN, which TNR.com runs.) The issue of credibility was actually raised during TFT’s development. Initially TFT was to be an outgrowth of the Peterson Foundation, but its creators came to agree that in order to credibly produce “hard hitting and critical pieces,” they needed more independence, thus TFT’s formation as an LLC.

Pianin explains that the advisory board, not Peterson, serves as more of a guiding light in the editorial process, but the five-person group also contains several renowned deficit hawks :Urban Institute president and former CBO director Robert Reischauer, senior editor of Pew Research Center Jodie Allen, and CIGNA’s G. William Hoagland, who was formerly the staff director for the Senate Budget Committee. To be fair, TFT’s roster also boasts some longtime economic correspondents, including Anne Reilly Dowd, former Washington Bureau chief for Fortune and Money; Pianin, a reporter and editor for the Post for almost 30 years; Merrill Goozner, a health care blogger and longtime writer for the Chicago Tribune; and, in a recent acquisition, former New York Times reporter Edmund Andrews. One might question the appointment of Leo, however. Formerly of Reader’s Digest, her chief quantitative qualification appears to be a fascination with the number 7. (No, we’re not kidding.)

In TFT’s defense, Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli told the Times that the Post editors were the ones to “conceive” the story and then commissioned TFT to write it. Pianin says that the article’s journalistic flaws stem from a perfect storm of coincidence: the subject matter was “right in TFT’s wheel house,” as the group’s stated aim is to be “The Source for All Things Fiscal”; the Pew-Peterson report was the most recent and authoritative information, produced by a group that includes a former CBO director and a former ranking member of the House Budget Committee; the Concord Coalition is simply “one of the most outspoken groups on deficits and debts and for the need for budgetary reform and they’re highly regarded.” And finally, in regards for the failure to disclose the Peterson connections, Pianin argues that TFT has from the beginning been transparent on the fact that it has received funding from Peterson (even though it was not mentioned in this article specifically).

Moving forward, Pianin understands TFT needs to be careful and perhaps if they use similar sources in the future, they will “provide additional information.” “What we’re doing is a strictly journalistic venture,” Pianin explained. “This is not advocacy. This is reporting and analysis and we’ve assembled a group of a dozen or so Washington policy and budget experts and journalists that cover the ideological spectrum to write for us. We want all opinions reflected here. … What Pete Peterson has done is to provide us with the resources and ability to do really good journalism.” That and maybe a few studies that will support their work along the way.

Amanda Silverman is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.

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