By Maggie Thurber | Special to Ohio Watchdog
The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics which, among other things, says journalists should:
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
- Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
- Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
What in this code makes it acceptable for journalists to lobby members of Congress on behalf of their publication?
The Ohio Newspaper Association has asked U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, to oppose a Negotiated Services Agreement between the United States Postal Service and Valassis, a coupon and advertisement distributor. The NSA, if approved by the Postal Regulatory Commission, would give Valassis discounted mail rates for certain increases in the number of pieces they mail in their existing markets.
Brown willingly complied, writing a letter to the chairman of the PRC that repeats the allegations made by the newspaper industry.
The newspapers in Ohio, and across the nation, oppose the special rates because they believe they may lose advertising customers to this competitor. Postal News reports that “Newspapers have been conducting a coordinated editorial campaign against the NSA, claiming it undercuts one of their prime sources of advertising revenue.”
You cannot set yourself up as the watchdog of government when you’re lobbying that same government for your own benefit.
These are the same newspapers that are supposed to objectively cover the actions of Brown, and other elected officials. These are also the same newspapers that endorse candidates for office.
But now they’re asking for a favor – and getting it, as politicians urge the rejection of the Valassis NSA.
How is this not a conflict of interest?
How does this not compromise their integrity and damage their credibility?
Are we supposed to believe that no quid pro quo is expected, even if not promised or suggested, as a result of a senator’s support of the newspaper position?
Newspaper subscriptions and advertising revenues are declining, so it’s no wonder they are mobilizing to oppose anything that might offer an alternative to one of the services they provide. And if a consumer can get their flyers and coupons for free – without paying for a local paper – they probably will, especially in this economy. This would be a further blow to newspaper subscription rates.
But in rallying members of Congress, the newspapers are asking for special treatment. The same editorial boards that oppose crony capitalism (favoritism by politicians and government to a particular industry) are asking for exactly that.
And the politicians are complying.
A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that 67 percent of Americans surveyed believe there is a fair amount (30 percent) or great deal (37 percent) of bias in the news.
What will they think when they learn that newspapers are lobbying members of Congress to oppose a deal that could increase revenue for the USPS simply because they’re afraid it might cut into their own advertising?
Will the public even know? While some papers have editorialized on the issue, are they reporting on their own lobbying – as they do when others lobby the same elected officials?
American Pressworks, a lobbyist that represents the National Newspaper Association, has spent nearly $2 million between 2008 and 2011 lobbying primarily on postal issues, according to OpenSecrets.org.
The American public already is jaded when it comes to their opinion of the news. This is not going to help.
The newspaper industry needs to come clean on their lobbying and refrain from endorsing for any race in which they’ve lobbied one of the candidates.