A closer look at the Washington Post's new "partnership" with the Peter G. Peterson-funded Fiscal Times raises even more questions. As you know, the Center for Media and Democracy is urging readers to sign a petition to tell WaPo "no more fake news!" and to ask the paper not to outsource "news" writing to this group funded by an anti-Social Security billionaire.
Will the Post Let the Fiscal Times Write Disapprovingly about Health Reform Costs?
The five-person Advisory Board of the Fiscal Times includes a current insurance insider from CIGNA. That advisor, G. William Hoagland, is the Director of CIGNA Corporation's Public Policy Group. (Disclosure: CMD's Senior Fellow on Health Care, Wendell Potter, is a former insider at CIGNA who has spoken out extensively against industry efforts to manipulate the media.) Hoagland was previously a senior advisor to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and a long-time aide to Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM). It seems unusual to have such high-ranking industry employee playing an advising role in a self-described "independent media" group.
Another FT Advisory Board Member is Dr. Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on the major health care issues facing the U.S., as well as the U.S. role in global health policy. Accordingly, Dr. Altman's perspective seems distinct from Hoagland's. This begs the question of what influence if any the advisory board, or particular advisory board members, will have on the Fiscal Times.
In some organizations, advisory boards play a substantive role on policy decisions while in others they serve the role of attempting to build the credibility of an organization, or both. Within boards, each member has different relationships with key staff in an organization. Given Peterson's agenda in launching Fiscal Times, it's hard to imagine that CIGNA will be displeased by any critique of the costs of health care reform generated by his team, or by any effort to focus attention on this particular issue.
I believe the only question is when, not if the Fiscal Times will publish their analysis of the health reform bill and push their agenda as "news" on the pages of the Washington Post. That may be what happens next, unless the Post decides to stop with this charade and responds to calls to terminate this new "partnership." You can help by simply signing our petition.
In the meantime, if the Post prints a fake news piece by Fiscal Times you can bet it will be slanted, like the "fair and balanced" panels at Fox News --dominated by one side with a token, and usually milquetoast, opposing view. Perhaps we should all consider ourselves forewarned because the Fiscal Times' stated standard does sound eerily like that of Fox. Its release, reprinted by Fox News, by the way, states that it will "present balanced and accurate" reporting.
Remember, you read this prediction here first.
Will the Post Disclose How Much the Deal with the Fiscal Times Is Worth?
Let's have some real disclosure of how much money is changing hands in this deal, or really, how much the partnership is worth. Surely the cash-strapped Post, which has bought out many experienced reporters to cut costs, isn't paying the billionaire's spin team for their "news," is it? That really would multiply the scandal. But, is it better or worse, relatively speaking, for the Post to be letting the Fiscal Times buy access to its news pages for money or "free" labor?
The Washington Post should let the public know how much this "partnership" is worth in real dollars and, if absolutely no money is changing hands, how much the in-kind contributions are worth. How much money is the Post saving by not covering the budget beat itself and outsourcing it to Peterson's operation, and how much "free" press is the Fiscal Times getting for this arrangement?
The press releases announcing this partnership claim that the Fiscal Times is providing its content initially for "free," but we all know there is no such thing as a free lunch. At a minimum, the deal saves WaPo money and costs it some of its tattered credibility. The PR, distribution, and influence benefits to Fiscal Times are, to mimic Mastercard's ads, "priceless." So on behalf of all other interested parties, let me just ask, if the Post stands by this sweetheart deal, can other billionaires -- or a pool of advocates -- buy a byline just by volunteering to write stories?
Does Having Real Reporters Mean There's No Institutional Bias?
Of course, the Fiscal Times will defend itself by pointing to the experienced reporters it has brought on to write stories. That experience, however, did not prevent reporters from failing to disclose, in the first "news" story reprinted by the Post, that they prominently quoted another entity that just coincidentally happened to be funded by Peter G. Peterson, like itself. So much for the wisdom of experience.
No doubt the Post will take note that the Washington editor of the Fiscal Times is its own former political editor of online news, Eric Pianin, who took a buyout from WaPo in June. Another former Post reporter, Dan Morgan, is also on deck, along with other journalists who have focused on health reform issues. What a cozy arrangement. The fact that these are real reporters does not mean the reporting will be unbiased or unaffected by the agenda of Peter G. Peterson, the Blackstone billionaire and former Nixon crony footing the bill. Given the number of journalists out of work these days, it's impossible to believe there won't be inherent pressure to push stories that help make government programs less palatable, which is Peterson's long-standing objective.
It should come as no surprise that the leader at the helm of his new investment hails from the conservative halls of Reader's Digest. The Fiscal Times' new editor-in-chief is Jackie Leo, the former editor-in-chief of Reader's Digest, which has routinely used its ink and reach to spotlight right-wing luminaries like Justice Antonin Scalia, in addition to providing humorous short stories and jokes that I admit I used to enjoy reading in the "library" at my grandma's house.
Plainly, Peter G. Peterson knows what he wants and how to get it. He told the Post that this paper "is a new entity whose time has come," plugging its "independence." (Hey, if you say it often enough maybe it will become "true," didn't Lenin say that?) And, as former Post reporter Pianin told the Post in the puff piece WaPo published: "The Fiscal Times will be able to 'provide much more in-depth coverage of budgetary issues' than newspapers with already diminished staffers. He also expects the publication to do enterprise stories on spending policy, explanatory journalism, and profile major players in Washington."
So the news is out. Budget cuts in journalism mean the time is right for billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Peter G. Peterson to fill the resulting gaps in reporting. That may be good news for right-wing billionaires, but it's bad news for media and democracy. It's an uphill battle, but we've got to start somewhere in raising voices against this trend. Please sign our petition to help do something about this.