Media Bias vs. Vested Interest
posted by October 20 at 15:25 PMon
In a letter to our readers in this week’s Stranger, visual arts writer Jen Graves responds to reader concern over the recent resignation of music editor Dave Segal and club ad coordinator Bailee Martin. Martin, unbeknownst to her supervisors and Segal’s managers, had been writing club reviews for Segal under the pseudonym “Keenan Bowen” while simultaneously selling ads to clubs. This was a direct violation of the division between advertising and editorial—a divide that is necessary to ensure that editorial content is not tainted by financial conflict of interest; it’s why people who sell movie ads don’t review movies, and why people who sell restaurant ads don’t write food reviews.
Graves’s piece addressed the issue of conflicts of interest between arts writers and arts organizations. One common accusation in response to the news of Segal’s resignation that Graves’s letter did not address was the claim the Stranger’s news and political writers (me, Eli Sanders and Josh Feit in particular) have showed bias toward politicians and causes we personally supported, and thus had an equivalent, if not worse, conflict of interest.
A few examples:
However, during September’s 46th District primary election, Savage and Erica Barnett endorsed a personal friend, Stephanie Pure, without disclosing their friendship with her. Could that be considered a conflict of interest? Many would think so, or at least a lack of good journalism standards.
While you’re at it, please find out if Eli Sanders is on the payroll of the Darcy Burner campaign.
It’s kinda fresh that the Stranger condemns someone for a conflict of interest when there’s clear and obvious conflicts of interest in all their political writings. You seriously think that Josh Feit and Erica Barnett aren’t conflicted with their personal biases for, say, Maria Cantwell and the People’s Waterfront Coalition, when they write their allegedly objective articles?
Erica and Josh have some vested interests and relationships with the people they clearly support in their writing.
How, aside from the money involved, is this different from ECB writing an article about how rebuilding the viaduct is BAD BAD BAD and advocates the ‘surface option’, and calling it objective journalism, knowing that ECB has a serious personal interest in the success of Cary Moon’s PWC, which proposes and lobbies for the surface option?
Let me explain very clearly how it’s different. It’s different because I do not have an actual or potential financial interest in which viaduct option is chosen; Josh does not have a financial interest in Maria Cantwell’s success or failure; Eli is not on the payroll of the Darcy Burner campaign.
This matters. It matters because the Stranger has never presented our paper as a source of an “unbiased,” “objective” journalism. The Stranger belongs to a long tradition of “advocacy journalism,” a type of alternative journalism that goes back to the founding of the Village Voice. There is no explicit distinction between editorial and reporting staff at the Stranger; we have a four-person news department, unlike daily papers with their large (and separate) news and editorial staffs. We write journalism that is accurate and factual but which sometimes has a point of view (although that’s by no means always the case).
However, an opinion is not a conflict of interest. Not being “objective” is not a conflict of interest. Having a “bias” is not a conflict of interest. Being friends with a candidate may be a conflict of interest, but it isn’t one I tried to conceal; in fact, it’s the reason I didn’t cover Pure’s campaign. As for our endorsement, Dan and I were just two members of a seven-member editorial board. (And Dan had only talked to her once before our endorsement meeting.) And none of those even come close to constituting a “vested interest,” which implies private gain. I do not stand to benefit in any way from a decision on the viaduct, or whether Stephanie Pure comes in fourth or fifth in her state legislative campaign, or any other issue I have ever covered.
Now, can we talk about something else?