The purchase and sale of news reporters by powerful institutions and influential people are hardly a new phenomenon. But like all manifestations of disproportionate wealth, it's been raised to glorious new heights during the early 21st century.
Not only are journalists suborned by "access" into seeing things their bidders' way--access to company CEOs, access to entertainment and sports stars, advance access to the next Apple product--but increasingly they're directly employed by the companies they're supposed to be covering objectively.
The folly of these arrangements is now vividly on display, thanks to the travails of the National Football League. As Stefan Fatsis documents in a superb piece at Slate.com, some of the nation's most experienced and dedicated football reporters have downplayed the Ray Rice scandal in their work. Why? Because they work for NFL.com.
Sports leagues have been especially aggressive in setting up their own news operations, complete with promises that management doesn't interfere--no, not one bit--with the articles they publish. That line of malarkey was punctured in March, when we reported the revealing words of Dodgers PR boss Joe Jareck. Perhaps thinking that he was safely out of American earshot since he was in Australia, Jareck confided to an audience that the team runs its own news website, Dodgers.com, because then "we can spin it any way we want."
In his book, "The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism," Starkman observed that "access reporting tends to talk to elites; accountability, to dissidents."
Politics, business and entertainment are especially vulnerable to the primacy of access. The political reporter I.F. Stone once issued a withering judgment of the quintessential access journalist Theodore H. White, whose "Making of the President 1960" was chock full of insider nuggets delivered by sources who received, in return, fulsome praise in the pages of White's best-selling book: "A writer who can be so universally admiring," Stone wrote, "need never lunch alone."
The loudmouthed sports site Deadspin, part of the Gawker Media stable, labels itself as offering "sports news without access, favor or discretion"--the latter two qualities are handmaidens of the first. Its information about the NFL scandals may not be the freshest, but its takes about the actions of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have been customarily uncompromising. If you like that sort of thing.
The sports leagues and companies that set up their own news outlets pretend that their only goal is to provide useful information to fans, customers or members of the public who can no longer get it from a fragmented news industry. That's a scam; powerful entities have always resented having their public statements filtered by skeptical intermediaries in the press--or worse, having their secrets exposed.