A controversial Post partnership with the Fiscal Times

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Since the new year, The Post's integrity has come under withering assault from those claiming it took special-interest "propaganda" and passed it off as a news story. That's false, but The Post is paying the price for a glaring lack of transparency with its readers.

The controversy surrounds a Dec. 31 story that said momentum was building for a plan to name a special bipartisan commission to address the nation's debt. It was written by two veteran Washington journalists, Elaine S. Povich and former longtime Post staffer Eric Pianin, who work for a start-up digital news organization called the Fiscal Times. The story was the first from Fiscal Times to appear in The Post under a new partnership.

In protests to The Post, a group of policy experts and academics opposed to the commission idea noted that the Fiscal Times was created and funded by billionaire Peter G. Peterson, a former Wall Street investment banker who has publicly called for reducing federal deficits and controlling the cost of entitlement programs. Peterson, they said, "has engaged in a decades-long effort to have changes to Social Security considered under a fast-track commission which shields members of Congress from political accountability." The blogosphere took over from there. Soon, it had become a "scandal" in which The Post was accused of running "propaganda" masquerading as news.

My inquiry, based on information from the key players, doesn't support that. All agree that the story idea came from Post editors, not the Fiscal Times. And after the Fiscal Times submitted a first draft with a feature approach, it was Post editors who insisted instead on a hard-news focus on prospects for the commission. "We had complete and utter control," said Greg Schneider, The Post's national economy and business editor.

The Fiscal Times is one of the nontraditional news organizations being created to provide specialized reporting. The Post and other media outlets have begun partnering with them to bolster coverage diminished by staff reductions.

The groups have been underwritten by wealthy benefactors or foundations. Governance structures have been established to ensure autonomy. All are staffed by quality journalists, including some of the nation's best reporters and editors.

In a letter to me Thursday, Peterson said he is funding the Fiscal Times "with no strings attached." He hadn't known of the Dec. 31 story in advance, he said, adding, "I do not intend to review any articles prior to publication, and will not influence nor in any way be involved in decisions about editorial content." He said the same goes for his son, Michael, who helped create Fiscal Times. In a separate e-mail, Michael Peterson said he "played no role whatsoever" in the story and was "not aware" of it until it appeared.

So is The Post off the hook? Hardly. The story had serious deficiencies.

A footnote said only that Fiscal Times is "an independent digital news publication reporting on fiscal, budgetary, health-care and international economics issues." But it should have disclosed that it was created and funded by Peterson and noted his interest in the issues.

The story quoted the head of the Concord Coalition, "a nonpartisan group that advocates entitlement reform and balanced budgets." It failed to divulge that the group receives funding from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The Post later noted this in a Jan. 5 correction. Actually, it was Post editors who had urged Fiscal Times to include the Concord Coalition. During the editing process, Schneider said, "we suggested that they go to someone like the Concord Coalition . . . to get a quote that helped frame the story."

The story also cited data from a study by the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, again failing to note that it was the same Peterson who is behind the Fiscal Times.

The timing of the story was problematic, coming weeks before the Senate may consider the commission idea. The Fiscal Times plans to cover a spectrum of issues, but having its first story focused on one so closely tied to Peterson was inviting suspicion about its motives.

Finally, the story also was not sufficiently balanced with the views of those opposed to a fast-track commission.

The Post and the Fiscal Times now acknowledge the lack of transparency. "We didn't sufficiently disclose," said Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who talked at length with several from the group that protested. He plans to have them meet with Post journalists.

"I'm sure we will do additional stories" before the Senate meets on the issue, he said, "and I'm sure they will reflect their point of view."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company