New York Times media writer David Carr, who's almost always right about everything, has a piece in today's paper about sponsored (paid-for) journalism, in which he singles out The Texas Tribune in Austin for having avoided the obvious pitfalls. I'm not too sure about that.
Carr kicks off his piece talking about a digital "news" site called SugarString , actually a brand-building beard paid for by Verizon, dedicated to covering all the hot Internet topics in the world except domestic spying or net neutrality in this country. Today's lead item is "Just How Terrible is Hungary's Proposed Internet Tax," illustrating what we in the daily newspaper business used to call the "Three Rivers Rule" of safe journalism. You can stir the pot, kick the hornet's nest, write about anything you want, as long as it's at least three rivers away from the city where your publisher lives.
In this case a headline seeking to tantalize me with just how terrible that tax in Hungary might be raises what I think is an appropriate response: "No, Verizon, how about we discuss instead how terrible you are, you greedy cynical bastards, for turning over all our private phone records to the NSA without a fight." And Carr's point is that you're not going to see that story on SugarString. (Side note: Is a sugar string not an old-fashioned device used to lure ants to a bowl of water where they drown? Just asking.) Anyway, Carr makes a good point on that one.
On the other hand, Carr has always been sort of a fan of The Texas Tribune, a sponsored news site covering state government and politics from an Austin-centric perspective. He thinks the Tribune is better than the single-sponsor operations because it has a lot of sponsors. He quotes Tribune editor Evan Smith as saying, "Nonprofits rely on rich people and corporations, and Texas has a lot of both." Smith goes on to claim that the Tribune is a place where lions lie down with lambs, hatchets are buried and the rich and the corporations of Texas agree to disagree. Does that sound like any rich people you know in Texas?
Anyway, I think Carr is right about the Tribune 95 percent of the time, and I myself rely on it as a solid source of non-controversial reporting on many stories. Smith has recruited some of the state's best hands to his reporting staff -- people who might be running inner-tube concessions on the Guadalupe River if the Tribune weren't around to provide them with paychecks.
But everybody in this business has a rubber-meets-the-road moment -- a story that cuts hard against the grain of accepted wisdom. An example of accepted wisdom in Austin (and among most Texas journalists, and at my house) would be the belief that the University of Texas is a bastion of virtue in a sea of anti-intellectual iniquity and that Governor Rick Perry is the Great Satan who attacks it. The rubber-meets-road story was Wallace Hall.
Hall is the Perry-appointed UT regent who accused the university of corrupt practices at the law school. He said the university was trading law school admissions for political favors from key legislators. He also uncovered a pattern of shady practices by which an in-group of top law school faculty seemed to be running a fund-raising foundation as their personal piggy bank.
Everybody in Texas journalism knows that Perry is wrong up one side and down the other about the state's top universities. His "Seven Breakthrough Solutions" for higher education are are actually just four: 1) Line up large horde of barbarians just outside gate. 2) Knock down gate. 3) Pillage. 4) Oops.
The problem on the Hall story was that Hall, the Perry man, was completely and entirely right in all of his accusations, vindicated on every single one. A cabal of top UT supporters and powerful legislators continued to play the parts of the barbarians even after their efforts to have Hall impeached collapsed.
The Tribune reported that story -- the collapse of the impeachment effort -- as "Transparency Committee Votes to Censure UT Regent Hall." That's the rough journalistic equivalent of "Just How Terrible is Hungary's Proposed Internet Tax?" The real story that day was that the very strange totally ad hoc Get-Wallace-Hall committee of the Legislature realized it didn't have the goods to impeach him. Its own lawyers told the committee Hall had been doing his job as a regent and that, far from impeachable offenses, his actions amounted to due diligence -- a concept the Legislature might want a quick PowerPoint refresher course on someday.
The so-called censure of Hall was a weak attempt at face-saving by a bunch of greasy-lipped dirty-fingered hacks. The right headline that day was "Impeachment Fails, UT Regent Vindicated."
But that's the kind of deeply against-the-grain counter-intuitive story you're never going to see from an outfit that brags about how many rich people and corporations it can get money from, not to mention the University of Texas System itself, which has provided the Tribune with seven-figure subsidies since the Tribune's founding five years ago.
And it wasn't just that story. By lurking behind a false façade of objectivity, by doing he-said-she-said inside-baseball coverage over a two-year period, the Tribune simply failed to scratch the skin of the Wallace Hall story and never got at what was really going on. Not coincidentally, the real story would have been extremely awkward for the Tribune to report in terms of all those very important Austin-centric social/business relationships that keep the coffers full, or not.
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Look, I'm not calling the Tribune a whore or a liar. As I said, I think they do a good job on the day-to-day, as long as the story they're covering is not too direct a political or financial challenge for them. And the really good coverage of the Hall story, by the way, the hard-core investigative digging, came from two news sources, one of which was sponsored and the other ideologically aligned -- Watchdog.org and National Review.
So as the daily newspaper business sinks slowly beneath the horizon, I guess we're going to be stuck with some kind of sponsorship, good, bad or ugly. I just think it's important to remember that the basic hypothesis suggested by Smith's quotes in the Carr piece today --- that a hard-hitting American-style free press can be the gift of enlightened rich people -- is transparent humbuggery. The best motto the Tribune will ever be able offer is "All the News that Rich People and Corporations Think You Need to Know About."
And our appropriate response for that should be? Gee, thanks.