“Institutional Conflicts”: Why Do They Suck?

The Brazilian journalist does not feel free to write. More than just having to follow the editorial line of the publications they work for, the complaints principally have to do with coercion by political or business groups. –“A Profile of the Brazilian Journalist”

 To expect management to take [the] initiative [against institutional conflicts of interest] is futile. It’s not in management’s interest. It requires an assertion of professionalism arising from the newsroom staff itself. Fortunately, the tools are available for an independent conflicts committee to review complaints, post its findings online and bring corrupt influences to light. Such an effort could start with the Journal, but shouldn’t end there.

Fads can be incredibly lucrative: mass hysteria and stupidity can make a real difference to a business’ bottom line. … –Rhymer Rigby. “Craze Management.” Management Today. London: Jun 1998. p. 58

Especially if you own, say, a machete distribution business in Rwanda.

Ethics in action: Dealing with institutional conflicts of interest (The Business Journalist, SABEW, Fall 2007): Edward Wasserman wonders whether the mechanisms to preserve the editorial independence of the Wall Street Journal have any teeth in them.

A follow-up to:

See also

Doubtful, the professor and Miami Herald editor emeritus argues.

I may even try my hand at translating this (badly) into Portuguese. Using the gerund shamelessly, ta me entendendo? I think it would make interesting reading alongside

Notes Wasserman:

The editors will still report to the Journal’s publisher — a News Corp. hire — and they will operate within budgets set by News Corp. Plus, with members of the special committee paid $100,000 a year to attend quarterly meetings, and with no provision for gathering information from the newsroom, the opportunities the panel will have to ensure newsroom independence seem scant.

One of those show-of-efficiency measures — like having an ombudsman for readers, but hiding the link to his column on your Web site so that no one can read it.

Wasserman argues that focusing on personal conflicts of interest are beside the point.

Which I agree wholeheartedly with. See also

Wasserman suggests that only newsroom professionals can effectively control “institutional” conflicts, and that independent commissions can play an effective role.

Certainly. A case in point might be the Budd  commission on impartiality in BBC business journalistm.

But note also how mightily BBC content managers struggled to spin those results into an endorsement of its new style of journalism:

In practice, then, the News Corp.-Dow accord seems beside the point:

… the agreement set forth principles of operation that are worth noting. Among them are a prohibition on “hidden agendas” and this requirement: “Analyses represent the publications’ best independent judgments rather than their [sic] preferences, or those of their owner, sources, advertisers or information providers…” That final assertion, though ungrammatical, seems clear: That it is forbidden to tilt coverage toward News Corp.’s far-flung interests, operations and predations.

But.

But the nature of institutional conflicts is that they aren’t expressed in forthright pronouncements that outsiders can read and deplore. They take the form of subtle hints for and against, no-go coverage zones, stories that are pursued reluctantly and displayed with little prominence, authoritative rumors that “the fifth floor” or “the suits” or the “home office” would prefer to see more of this and less of that.

“A good horse shies even at the shadow of the whip” –Zen koan:

They constitute a powerful steering mechanism, but if you want to know about them you have to listen to the people in steerage — the journalists whose professional obligation to their public is being compromised. Empanelling an occasional board of outsiders gets you nowhere; you need to empower your own newsroom staff.

Rather than, say, taking the approach preferred by João Marinho:

But why?

Those people are your chattel.

They can be replaced by software.

So they can do what they are told or else go live in a cardboard box, right?

No opportunity to confront institutional conflicts:

That’s the opportunity the dealmakers missed in the Journal case, and they’re not alone. As widespread as the pressures I’ve described are, and as corrosive as they are to the ideal of journalism without fear or favor, I know of no newsroom mechanisms anywhere that exist to identify them and root them out, and no formalized opportunities journalists have to confront them.

“The heavy hand of institutional conflicts falls heavily on business reporting staffs.”

 Their work has always been most susceptible to being mortgaged as part of the ad package with the big retailer that’s opening up in town, and it is their stories about how to know what the dealer really pays for its cars and how to sell your house without an agent that are the first to suffer. Now, in today’s converged, conglomerated newsrooms, the need for detection and resistance is even greater.

But why?

Why should we not just accept that what we are doing is Journalism 2.0, that “objectivity and impartiality are now recognized as unrealizable ideals,” or that, as they say here in Brazil, that “Romantic journalism is dead”?

And that the basic unit of business activity is no longer the firm, but the “business ecosystem,” as Jim “Elmer Gantry” Moore preaches it in the Gospel According to the Harvard Business Review?

This revolution is irrevocable! It’s the beginning of a New Age! The Rapture is upon us!

Well, you know pretty much what I think by now.

To expect management to take such an initiative is futile. It’s not in management’s interest. It requires an assertion of professionalism arising from the newsroom staff itself. Fortunately, the tools are available for an independent conflicts committee to review complaints, post its findings online and bring corrupt influences to light. Such an effort could start with the Journal, but shouldn’t end there.

I am totally sympathetic to this argument, but what about the role of the consumer?

Consumers of information services have to express a strong preference for no-nonsense Journalism 1.0 over, say, a Wall Street Journal now defiled with a section called “The Buzz.”

buzz noun a confusion of activity and gossip

Main Entry: 2buzz
Function: noun
1 : a persistent vibratory sound
2 a : a confused murmur b : RUMOR, GOSSIP c : a flurry of activity d : FAD, CRAZE e : speculative or excited talk or attention relating especially to a new or forthcoming product or event <one of the few new shows that’s getting good buzzTV Guide>; also : an instance of such talk or attention <their first CD created a huge buzz>
3 : a signal conveyed by buzzer; specifically : a telephone call
4 : HIGH 4

If I wanted confused murmur, excited talk and rumors about fads or crazes, or to feel like I’m totally high, dude, I would read Reuters blogs for free.

What I tend to pay good money for, on the other hand, is to have my information purified of imaginary news and nonsense, and made as complete as humanly possible in the time alloted, before I consume it.

Sell the Wall Street Journal to me: I will buy the rights to the title “The Straight Dope” from Cecil Adams and send a very clear message: Buzz is over.

It’s like, soooo Bush Administration.

The reality-based community is baaack, baby!

It may not be humanly possible to deliver on the famous boast, “All the news that’s fit to print.”

Fine, but at least do this for me: Do not try to get me to believe in nonexistent facts.

After all, soft drinks are marketed these days under slogans like “Don’t buy the hype! Obey your thirst!”

Why not journalism?

As  Roy H. Williams, the Wizard of Ads®, says:

  1. The media is not the message.
  2. The message is the message.
  3. And the message is what matters most.
  4. To deliver a pointless message powerfully is the definition of hype.
  5. To deliver a powerful message pointlessly is the result of weak creative.

I have always thought that about publication marketing guys who work this “stealth marketing” vein with their publication: They are basically just (1) too fucking lazy to understand the product they are selling, or what customers want from it, and (2) amazingly shortsighted.

When Second Life goes supernova, then shrinks to a red dwarf, for example, what are readers who remember your publication setting up a special section to report “news” from this “alternative reality” going to think of you now?

That you have a distorted sense of what actually matters and what doesn’t?

I have been developing the bare bones of such a marketing campaign here on this blog for a while now.

You can steal it if you like (though that would be dishonest of you).

It is very simple:

Under this theory, readers — and especially discerning business readers — are not going to be grateful to you for swamping them with irrelevant nonsense and fuzzy noise designed to stampede them, in a panic, into making stupid and costly decisions.

Like, say, the proposition that (1) the Iraq war would pay for itself and, (2) the cost of not fighting it might be — just might be — “a mushroom cloud.”

I know I certainly am not.

I do spend a lot of time dissecting gabbling nonsense, but only because it appeals to the literary side of my sensibility.

Far from inchoate and mushy, wilful noncommunication has its anatomical forms and varieties that I find fascinating.

Even so, all your business reader really reader wants to know is whether it has anything to do with the price of eggs in Poughkeepsie.

No?

Next.

After all, the guy hasn’t got all day.

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