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May 23, 2009

L.A. police union wants changes at San Diego paper

The next time someone holds up established newspaper corporations as bastions of structural independence compared to partisan media, I'll point them to this story:

The union representing Los Angeles police officers is pressuring the owner of San Diego’s main newspaper to change the paper’s editorial stance on labor issues or to fire its editorial writers.

The  feud is rooted in the recent purchase of the San Diego Union-Tribune by Platinum Equity, a private Beverly Hills firm.

Platinum relies on a $30-million investment from the pension fund of Los Angeles police officers and fire fighters, along with large sums from other public-employee pension systems around the state, to help fund its acquisitions of companies. As League President Paul M. Weber views it, that makes the League part owner in the flagging Tribune and League officials are none to happy with the paper’s consistent position that San Diego lawmakers should cut back on salaries and benefits for public employees in order to help close gaping budget deficits.

There's been a lot of talk lately about how to fund print reporting now that so many newspaper companies are going out of business. Two of the most popular alternative proposals are philanthropic/non-profit journalism and government funding. These options have been criticized as undercutting the independence of the media. If a foundation funds a newspaper, the news will reflect the agenda of the funders. There are ways to insulate government-funded media from political pressure, but the risk of bias can't be dismissed entirely.

The police union story illustrates certain structural biases in the current business model. If a paper is a corporation, its investors may have ideological as well as financial agendas.

The paper hasn't caved yet, and it's not clear whether the police union will carry the day--probably not this time, given the optics of firing op/ed writers after all this publicity. Still, it's worth thinking about how similar dynamics may be subtly or dramatically influencing coverage at papers around the country.

[HT: Boing Boing]

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Who has said anything negative about the philanthropic model as encouraging bias?

A lot of well-known progressive and conservative magazines are published by philanthropically-supported non-profits. There are also relatively non-ideological non-profits out there, like ProPublica.

Well, if David Geffen has his way, then the New York Times will be one of them. I'm just curious if there's any categorical opposition to the model the way there is to government-run newspapers.

And while we're at it, if I wanted to attack commercial newspapers as beholden to corporate interests, I'd pick a better example than a newspaper whose owner tried and (probably) failed to influence its editorial stances.

California public safety people are in general extremely well paid and their pensions are often very good, sometimes absurdly so. In addition there are thousands of individual cases where the pension money is obscenely high. With California's virtual bankruptcy towns and cities are going to be busting the contracts especially the retirement parts. Politically the unions are in a losing position because of the excesses. If they think having one newspaper on their side is going to help they are fools.

Underfunded pensions or just continuing funding is going to be costing even small towns hundreds of thousands a year and big cities hundreds of millions and taxpayers will not settle for it. As vital services are cut, or even not vital but popular there will be more either or choices and if it's a fireman or cop getting a mid to high 5 figure pension after 20 years or the other things the loser is going to be the pensioners.

If the union thinks having one newspaper on their side or at least less hostile they are fools.

Interesting story, but with regards to goverment funding I think I recall seeing that right wing Wall Street Journal had a show on PBS not long ago, I haven't watched PBS since. NPR went though and may still be going though a right leaning period as well. What ever methods are being used to insulate apparently were not working.

Why do we assume a market model underwritten by advertising promotes independence of media?

Chris

It offers far more independence of thought than public financing of PBS does. PBS has had an overwhelmingly left/liberal bias for at least the last 35 years, through Republican and Democratic administrations.

If it's been biased to the left regardless of the administration, that means it's not susceptible to political pressure. The corporate media are very sensitive to who's in power.

Lindsay, what is the argument that they are? I'm asking because when I read about media bias, I see the left assert that the media is always conservative, and the right assert that it's always liberal. The easiest way I can learn someone's political bias is to ask him what he thinks CNN's bias is; his bias is the opposite of the answer he'll give, regardless of who's in power.

(P.S. PBS and the BBC may be good examples of public media, but they're electronic. No free country that I know of has public newspapers. A few countries, like Singapore, have public newspapers that try to make people believe they're not propaganda, but it's always part of a democratic pretense.)

I don't think PBS is especially biased, most of their programming is apolitical and non-news. Their signature news program is the impeccably neutral Newshour (formerly The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour). They're famous for the McLaughlin Group which has some real fossil conservatives and no firebrand liberals that I've ever seen. Frontline does some of the best investigative journalism on TV, but it's no more lefty than 60 Minutes.

Basically, the only really liberal political news show on PBS is Bill Moyers' show.

There are ideological biases which should be distinguished from systemic biases. Let me give you an example of a systemic bias. If your publication depends on ad revenue, you're going to have to run content that doesn't scare off too many of your target advertisers, or the demographics that those advertisers pay to reach. So, the NYT gets a lot of its money from the luxury goods manufacturers who are striving to reach very rich people. The NYT has a firewall between advertising and editorial and I doubt that the editors think much about how their day-to-day stories are going to sit with Cartier--but the decisions about where to expend resources and what features to have and who to include on the op/ed are colored by the bottom line imperative of not alienating too many rich readers.

The print/electronic distinction doesn't hold up. The BBC publishes more original text news content on its website each day than most newspapers.

If I had my way, there would be diverse sources of support for reporting--from public grants to private foundations to advertising to paid subscriptions and crowd funding. I don't think there's any one business model that can save news, or more to the point, today's floundering news company's. We're going to have to cobble together various partial solutions instead of holding out for one magic bullet.

We can test the systemic bias hypothesis by comparing papers with different revenue streams. For example, if it were a real issue, you'd expect to see the WSJ completely stay away from issues like inequality and poverty. Instead, the WSJ tackles these issues at least as frequently as papers with more socially minded readers, like the NYT. You'd also expect to see the publicly supported BBC act materially differently from ad-supported CNN and Al Jazeera; again, there's no such difference - the three networks are distinguished mainly by their country of origin than by the source of their income.

Have you actually crunched the numbers on the content in the WSJ vs. the NYT?

The BBC's coverage is materially different from CNN's--most notably, the BBC devotes way more resources to international news than CNN does. At the last panel on funding the news that I attended, editor Mark Schone of Salon and several of his fellow editors on the panel said right out: International news doesn't sell and therefore there's a lot less of it in the American media, especially in the for-profit media.

Another example are business sections. Ever wonder why it's always a "Business" section and never a "Labor" section, even in the supposedly liberal media?

A couple weeks ago, an economics writer for a national magazine told me that his publication is aggressively pushing business coverage on its website because advertisers want to reach the kinds of people who read business sections.

The part about the WSJ vs. the NYT was just my impression.

I know that the BBC does international news better than CNN (though Americans tend to exaggerate the difference, since they get BBC World and CNN US; if you compare CNN International to BBC World, the difference is much smaller). That falls under the rubric of country of origin, rather than business model: Americans just don't care that much about the world outside their borders. Conversely, commercial stations headquartered in other countries are much more like the BBC in this regard than like CNN. Al Jazeera is as international as the BBC. The British papers are also quite international in focus - the Guardian deserves special mention.

Diverse funding and views is key. The center is defined as somewhere between one of the two NY papers? "In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized-- connected "up" to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding."Here from PressThink

Don't reporters themselves make up a distinct socioeconomic class with distinct interests and therefore at least the potential for systemic ideological bias? This is one of the legitimate issues that Dean Baker is always trying to remind people of the consequences of. And of course I am not trying to say that journalists are colluding in order to consciously spin information in a light that favors them. Just that, like everyone else, their own socioeconomic positioning informs their genuinely-held political views, and this in turn informs the aspects of the world that get emphasized in their reporting.

I guess what I am saying is that knowing how to read the news should involve at least some knowledge of the socioeconomic situations of the people who create it, and this includes both advertisers and reporters.

First, Dean Baker forms a class of his own, consisting of people with minimal or no credentials who can write papers because a thinktank publishes them without peer review. Academics tear apart the garbage that CEPR calls research (see e.g. Paul Collier's takedown in The Bottom Billion); why should I take it seriously?

Second, journalists come from a mixture of social classes. Some are rich, like the high-echelon ones at the New York Times. But not all are - some are lower-middle class, complete with the two-bedroom walkup in a barely gentrified neighborhood, no health insurance, and unstable income. They're more educated than most people in their income bracket, but they're still not very rich. Ironically, because the most senior journalists become pundits and leave the reporting stuff to their worse-paid colleagues, the investigative reporting is often done by people who don't make any more than their average reader.

Daniel, I agree. These are all factors that tend to shape media coverage. You don't have to believe that people from one class are totally incapable of being objective, or deliberately biased in order to accept the basic fact that the people who do the work shape the work that gets done. Bias isn't usually straightforwardly liberal or conservative, and there's no straightforward formula that gets you from class to political orientation.

我爱皮肤 know that the BBC does international news better than CNN (though Americans tend to exaggerate the difference, since they get BBC World and CNN US; if you compare CNN International to BBC World, the difference

Alon writes;
First, Dean Baker forms a class of his own, consisting of people with minimal or no credentials who can write papers because a thinktank publishes them without peer review. Academics tear apart the garbage that CEPR calls research (see e.g. Paul Collier's takedown in The Bottom Billion); why should I take it seriously?

Doyle;
This is bizarre. Obviously you don't understand enough economics to rein in your opinions. Economics is fuzzy and institutionally one doesn't take down economic theory. If one did, the whole Chicago School wouldn't have existed. Mainly what makes me wary about someone is just your sense of 'garbage' values. A label like that makes no sense in the 'political' economy of the current capitalist system. One can say Friedman's ideology of free markets is non functional in the real economy, but that didn't stop Reagan or Thatcher from imposing the orthodoxy.

How would peer review have affected Friedman? Look at the inability of the U.S. economics teaching to represent diversity. It denies tenure to the left of center much less the left. Hence peer review is a meaningless sham. What comforts me is not so much catching you out is that economic forces shape the choices people have, also eventually break the orthodox economic theory and it's obedient servants in academia. Having led us up to the brink of economic collapse the economic orthodoxy still preaches the same old same old.

Doyle: Paul Krugman, Amartya Sen, and Joseph Stiglitz all have tenure. Sen and Stiglitz won their acclaim saying essentially leftist things - Sen that economic growth is less important an objective than improving literacy and health care, and Stiglitz that market failure is more common than market success in developing countries. They didn't call for a communist revolution, but so what? Friedman didn't call for abolishing government, either; does that mean libertarian voices are not represented in economics?

My sense of garbage comes from quality control. Friedman engaged in painstaking research about money supply, taking on Keynesian orthodoxy, and won. He did so publishing his findings in journals edited by people who disagreed with him and showing how his theory correctly predicted inflation bouts; nowadays even people who are not monetarists often quote him in support of their own views (e.g. Brad DeLong). Keynes, incidentally, did the same, a generation earlier.

This is very different from what thinktanks do: at CEPR, CAP, the AEI, Heritage, etc., papers are accepted or rejected based on whether their conclusions are in accordance with the thinktank's stance. The result is that the quality of research is terrible. Arthur Laffer said that cutting taxes would increase revenue, and walked away as the Bush-era tax cuts saw revenues plunge and deficits skyrocket. Dean Baker suggests solving the health care crisis by credentialing doctors based on a computer-based standardized test. Amity Shlaes believes the New Deal was bad for the economy because unemployment in 1937, a year when FDR scaled down the New Deal against Keynes' advice, causing a recession, was not much lower than in 1933. None of these ideas gets much traction from real economists, but their thinktank machines force people to treat them seriously.

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