The Times, it is a Changin’

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Murdoch as Moral Guidepost?

I know I said I wasn’t going to write about the Texas Tribune again but like my ma said, “There’s a lot of things I don’t wanna do in life, son, but I have to do them.” The numbers in this piece cried out for exclamation points. I tried to provide them. I don’t care what anyone says, the Trib is a threat to the entire industry of journalism and its practices need to be denounced, loudly and publicly. 

The New York Times made a decision to partner with the Texas Tribune that has left it exposed to a set of standards that will likely harm the paper’s reputation. The Times publishes a Sunday insert from the Texas Tribune, which provides coverage of a state that has never been able to stay out of the news. (In journalism there are only two things you can count on: death and Texas.) The state delivers ready content and the Times does not need to hire staff to report from Texas.

The partnership makes abundant sense from a business standpoint. The editorial operations of the New York Times have supplemental content and, in return, the Texas Tribune gets statewide promotion, and its writers are also often published in the national paper. The NYT has been losing circulation in Texas and, in all likelihood, the Trib deal has helped to stop that slide.

But who edits whom?

 
Before the Times slaps down its famous imprimatur on the toddler Tribune, does it edit stories for facts, content, contradictions, and conflicts of interest in what has been written? The agreement must require that the editorial department of the NYT trusts the Texas Tribune to deliver appropriate editorial material with relevant disclosures. Otherwise, the resources needed to check the Trib’s work would impact revenue and reduce the value of the partnership.

Trusting the Trib, though, is dangerous. And the NYT might want to consider doing a better job of editing its little brother down yonder, or cancel their subscription to the alleged non-profit Texas Tribune. Just this month, February 1, 2014, Ross Ramsey, an executive editor of the Trib wrote an NYT column about campaign finance in Texas, illuminating, at least partially, the way things work down here under the Lone Star. Ramsey, a fine writer, turned a lovely phrase that explained how candidates preferred to talk about all the little guys offering their campaigns small contributions, and how candidates were “counting the number of open wallets rather than the dollars falling out of them.”

“Having thousands of donors ready to spend even a little money is terrific,” Ramsey wrote. “But do not be fooled. The millionaires’ and billionaires’ club is thriving in Texas politics.”

In a standard pattern of behavior for the Texas Tribune, Ramsey did not mention that the millionaires and billionaires that he wrote about giving money to campaigns are also generously contributing to the Trib. How can the news outlet expect to sustain credibility when it is also taking huge gifts from the wealthy people who are also financing the political dreams of the people the Texas Tribune covers?

The New York Times’ standards of disclosure probably would have had the Tribune reveal the money it was receiving from political donors while writing about political donors. But the information was not present in Ramsey’s column, nor was there even an allusion to any potential financial conflict of interest.

How bad is it?

The leading Republican candidate for Texas governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott, in both his general and gubernatorial accounts, took $1.8 million from deceased billionaire Harold Simmons while the Simmons Family Foundation donated $75,000 to the Texas Tribune.

The late Bob Perry, a homebuilder who financed the Swift Boat attacks against John Kerry, gave Abbott $1 million and the Tribune $110,000.

T. Boone Pickens, who has pushed everything from natural gas to water pipelines, put $433,000 into Abbott’s campaign fund and $175,000 in the Trib’s account.

The chairman of the University of Texas board of regents, Paul Foster, invested $295,000 in Abbott’s election and $150,000 in the Tribune’s operations.

If the Tribune is going to use the pages of the New York Times to write about wealthy donors to Texas gubernatorial campaigns, it would seem the Times would want them to disclose they are also taking money from those same people. It will inform a reader’s judgment on what is being written.

There was certainly information available. All of the numbers included here have been in candidate filings with the Texas Ethics Commission, and aggregated by the Texas Tribune; it’s on the Trib’s donor pages and the non-profit’s 2012 IRS 990, and some of it has already been published in the NYT.

A reader might want to know that the news outlet writing about big campaign donations to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is also getting big money from some of her supporters. Charles Butt, the Texas grocer, has put $124,000 in the Davis senate and gubernatorial efforts and $500,000 in the Tribune’s bank account. The Mostyn Law Firm went for $1 million on Wendy and $100,000 to the Trib, and the Border Health PAC of Doctors’ Hospital at Renaissance donated $60,000 to Davis’ electoral effort and $50,000 to whatever it is the Texas Tribune is doing.

If this failure to disclose is acceptable to the New York Times, the paper has problems as manifest as the Texas Tribune. Outsourcing content to a regional or local operation is a precarious proposition because controlling standards beyond your own business is difficult, often impossible. Let’s assume the Times did not know what was not being disclosed in the Ramsey piece on its pages. That means they are not editing and asking questions. And if the paper’s management knew this but did nothing to prevent it, the NYT loses major credibility.

But now they know, and damn well ought to do something about it.

Murdoch as Moral Guidepost?
Murdoch as Moral Guidepost?

The Wall Street Journal announced that it was beginning publication of a New York City metro section to compete with the Times. Robert Thomson, the managing editor of Rupert Murdoch’s WSJ, said the paper will hire reporters and create the content for the metro section. He also indicated the WSJ will not indulge in news gathering partnerships with local institutions, which is the approach used by the New York Times in its Texas Tribune relationship.

“It is inappropriate for a serious newspaper to subcontract its content,” Thomson said. “The risk to reputation is too great.”

The Texas Tribune has already harmed the NYT’s reputation. Their news partnership needs to be cancelled, unless the gray lady wants to get grayer, or simply lose all her hair from worry.

And let’s just stipulate that the New York Times and Texas Tribune have lost their way when they are getting moral and business guidance from a Rupert Murdoch operation.

 

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