Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Christian Science Monitor and Journalistic Ethics

This falls in the category of “I Can’t Believe I Heard That”  – or rather “I Can’t Believe
They’re Doing This.”

Having heard through the grapevine that US Trade Representative Michael Froman was being hosted in a rare press interview by the Christian Science Monitor, we naturally thought that we would be excluded – given our size.

Nevertheless, we asked anyway.  And lo-and-behold an invitation came saying the Monitor would be happy to include Washington Trade Daily in the breakfast roundtable with several other press organizations.  We were happy and quickly said yes.

A few minutes later WTD received an e-mail from the Monitor saying bring $47 dollars – in cash, check or credit card.

Whoa!  Wait a minute!

Since when does any organization – much less one that calls it self a news organization – charge for news.  I don’t pay out money for news.  I said so and the Monitor said the $47 only covered the cost of breakfast in a fancy Washington hotel.  I responded that we could not pay to cover news events, but would be happy to come, stand around the wall, not ask questions and not eat.

No go, said the Monitor.  Everyone of the members of press at the event (I don’t know if it applied to Christian Science Monitor reporters) had to pay $47 whether he or she ate or not.  I was told that it was a requirement of the hotel.  ABSOLUTELY NOT SO.

The Washington bureau chief of the Christian Science Monitor listed press outlets that agreed to pay.  They included The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Bloomberg BNA, The Associated Press, Reuters, Politico, CBS
News, Politico, ABC News and National Public Radio

(By the way –  our chief competitor, Inside US Trade, didn’t know about the event.)

I objected to the charge and shot off an email of protest to the chief editor at the Boston headquarters –

>> From: <>
>> Date: Mon, Sep 23, 2013 at 5:15 PM
>> Subject: Charging for Christian Science Monitor press breakfast
>> To:
>> I want to express may extreme disappointment with the CSM about
>> charging the press to cover newsmakers events in what is laughingly
>> called CSM breakfasts for the press.
>> How can a newspaper charge other reporters to cover events they
>> sponsor.  Will CSM reporters covering this Thursdays' event in
>> Washington have to pay $47 dollars to cover a senior Administration
>> official -- US Trade Representative Michael Froman.
>> Doesn't the Monitor have any ethics left.  Since its only on-line now,
>> I guess it does not consider itself a legitimate newspaper.
>> Jim Berger
>> Washington Trade Daily
>> 301-946-0817

The email was promptly redirected to the same Washington bureau chief that I was objecting to.

Everyone involved seemed mystified by my objections.  The simple fact, especially for Washington Trade Daily, is that if a news outlet pays for news – with or without a meal – it would justify other organizations charging the press to attend their events.  With all the events – many small – we cover, that would lead to charges upwards of hundreds of dollars a day.

The small, but influential Global Business Dialogue, in fact, had an event at the same time in the same hotel.  It did not feel compelled to charge the press.  Pastries and coffee were even provided.

Conversely, the same principle can apply to sponsors of news events paying reporters to cover their event and write stories.  (Wouldn’t that be nice).

The Christian Science Monitor press breakfasts have been going on for at least two decades, we recently discovered.  Some major news outlets, including Reuter news services, had in the past refused to participate based on the objections we outlined.  But one time the Associated Press got a story and they didn’t, so that rule ceased.

It is unfortunate that any sponsor of a newsworthy – on the record – event should exclude any press, much less insist on them paying to attend.  It is doubly worse when a news organization itself does it to make money.  In fact, it makes no sense that a newspaper should capture a Cabinet-level official and then charge others to attend.  WTD would have kept the official in close quarters, do the interview, write the story and then provide it to our subscribers.   But the Christian Science Monitor apparently doesn’t see it that way.

I suppose USTR Froman – himself a liberal Democrat (I think) – doesn’t either.  Why would he allow himself to be put on display for a fee, as if he were a part of Barnum’s New York Museum.

Now before anyone thinks that WTD is beyond deviousness in obtaining news stories, we must say that although we did not attend the event we snuck in a tape recorder and got the story anyway.

(p.s.:   We wrote a story, but in my opinion, it wasn’t worth $47.)

(p.p.s.:  In full disclosure, WTD has, in fact, paid for lunches in the past.  The $13 for all-you-can-eat Chinese food at the monthly National Economic Club events are just too good to pass up – especially when its mid-day in Washington and the reporter is starving.  The NEC gives the press the option, however, of attending free and not eating.  Tough choice, unlike the Christian Science Monitor event).

Jim Berger
Washington Trade Daily

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