Commercial Alert website, May 31st, 2000
Coalition Queries Newspapers on Secret Agreements to Limit Coverage
Commercial Alert, media scholars and activists sent letters today to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post to ask about their policies regarding secret agreements to exclude certain perspectives from articles about corporations. The letter to New York Times Managing Editor Bill Keller follows.
Dear Mr. Keller:
We want to inquire about your newspaper’s policies regarding secret agreements to exclude certain points of view from articles in exchange for a news scoop about corporations.
On May 29, The Washington Post reported a most troubling example of this trend. It said “a publicist hired by United Airlines and US Airways offered three major newspapers a deal that none of them could refuse. The pitch: We’ll give you the exclusive details of a $5 billion merger if you promise not to call any outsiders for comment.” According to the Post article, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post all agreed, but the deal fell apart because the Financial Times broke the story on its website.
These secret exclusion agreements with corporations or their PR firms limit the scope of discussion of a news story about corporate conduct. They block out voices that offer perspective on corporations, such as consumer, citizen, public health, or environmental groups. For example, the deal with the airlines? PR firm excluded comment from anyone who might have questioned whether the airline merger was good for citizens, consumers or the nation’s free enterprise ideals.
Even worse, these secret agreements betray readers? trust. By failing to disclose the nature and extent of these agreements, readers do not know what information newspapers?which are supposed to provide news and analysis?are purposely hiding from them.
By adopting such secret agreements, your newspaper basically tells the story the corporate subject wants you to tell, while pretending to be an objective news source. Other voices are excluded entirely from the discussion and debate, even though the corporate conduct in question may affect them personally and deeply. This in turn sends an implicit message that these other voices aren’t worth hearing, and so they may not get heard at all.
Your readers deserve to know the answers to these questions:
1. What is your policy regarding the disclosure of agreements to exclude perspectives, in exchange for a news scoop about a corporation?
2. Would your newspaper agree to running a box under a news story disclosing any secret exclusion agreements, indicating what points of view have been intentionally omitted?
George Gerbner, President and Founder, Cultural Environment Movement; Dean Emeritus, Annenberg School of Communication
Janine Jackson, Program Director, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Robert McChesney, Research Associate Professor, U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; author, Rich Media, Poor Democracy
Mark Crispin Miller, Professor of Media Ecology, New York University
Gary Ruskin, Director, Commercial Alert
John Stauber, Executive Director, Center for Media and Democracy
<———-letter ends here——–>
Commercial Alert opposes the excesses of commercialism, marketing and advertising. Commercial Alert’s web address is http://www.commercialalert.org.