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A Case of Journalistic Pay to Play?

Plans for a curious joint advertising/editorial venture between the Albuquerque Journal and the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce are raising questions about the paper’s ability to cover the business community objectively.

In addition to causing consternation in the business community, the alliance also raises questions about whether it violates basic journalistic principles  – specifically, whether it compromises the sacred separation that is supposed to exist between an objective newspaper’s editorial content and its advertising.

Here are the details:  On July 13, the chamber will publish a quarterly report called “Business Plan” in the “A” section of the Albuquerque Journal.  In addition, beginning on July 27, the chamber will run a full-page “Business Plan” report every other week in the Journal’s Business Outlook.

In a letter to its members, the chamber pitches the new Journal sections as  “exciting new advertising opportunities” and notes that buying ads will give them access to the “Journal’s Average Weekday Statewide Readership of 260,925!”

Rates for the special section ads were not listed. It is also not clear whether the Journal or the Chamber of Commerce will write and edit content for the sections.

In 1999, a similar advertising/special section arrangement between the Los Angeles Times and the Staples Center caused a titanic uproar in the journalism world.  More than 300 Los Angeles Times employees – embarrassed at their editors’ breach of journalism ethics – signed a petition calling for an internal investigation into the arrangement.

The fallout from the incident and the widespread condemnation from other journalists later caused Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes to resign in disgrace.

The Chairman’s Table

According to the letter, chamber members who place ads in the Journal sections will become members of a new group called the “Chairman’s Table,” which the chamber says will “provide prominent recognition of companies which provide annual financial resources leading to the continued success” of the chamber.

According to the letter, Chairman’s Table members will agree to sponsor a program or event or advertise in the quarterly Business Plan in the Albuquerque Journal, or in the bi-monthly editions of the Business Plan in the Business Outlook. In exchange, Chairman’s Table members will get access to exclusive invitation-only events, including bi-annual events with the former board chamber chairman where they will receive “special updates on timely and current issues facing the business community.”

The coziness of the arrangement between the state’s largest paper and the city’s biggest business group is angering some chamber members, who say it seems to give new meaning to the concept of pay to play.

One business owner who chooses to remain anonymous said the chamber told her to “pick up her membership check” when she raised objections to buying a Journal ad.  Other chamber members are wondering: Does this mean all chamber members who don’t agree to buy Journal ads will be asked to leave?  Will chamber members be pressured to advertise in the special sections?

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The Journal’s Jihad

The Albuquerque Journal’s bizarre jihad against the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is alive and well.  Following Independence Day, the state’s paper of record conveniently breached the firewall between its news section and its editorial section, yet again, as it circled back to “cover” the nonprofit sector in New Mexico.

By now, those familiar with the Journal will recognize its tactics:

  1. Story placement: Publishing a “story” about a new nonprofit in yesterday’s edition – the story was placed on the front page, above the fold.
  2. Juicy headline: You can almost hear Ron Burgundy reading this one –“Conservatives Look to Nonprofits, Move a Response to Liberal Efforts.”  Really.  Is that the title of a guest opinion piece?  No, it’s the title of a “news” story.
  3. The follow-up editorial in today’s edition: “Real Voter Education.”
  4. The inability, or refusal, to acknowledge thirty years of established Supreme Court legal precedent on the First Amendment.

This final tactic (the refusal or inability to actually discuss First Amendment law) is what is most damning to the Journal’s credibility.  In fact, it’s really an affront to Journal readers.  To treat readers like adults and actually analyze well-established law would be diametrically opposed to the Journal’s political agenda.  It’s that simple.

But, it gets even more bizarre.

As I discussed in an earlier post, top brass at the Journal have been heavily involved with a local nonprofit called the Foundation for Open Government.  As you can see here, the first and perhaps most important charge for FOG (as listed on their own site) is to help the public “understand and exercise their First Amendment rights.”  I wonder how the Journal editor squares the FOG mission with his paper’s year long Jihad against the most basic of American rights.

Really.  On the one hand, there’s the “promotion” of the First Amendment through FOG, while at the same time a concerted effort by the state’s paper of record to avoid a thoughtful discussion of First Amendment law.

It’s the kind of cognitive dissonance that leaves one speechless.

The Arc of the Journal

arcEfforts to reform the nation’s ailing health system – or non-system as it were – are dominating news headlines.  Yet, if you rely on the Albuquerque Journal (the state and city’s “paper of record”), you’d probably have a rather skewed notion of the parameters of the health care debate.

Turns out I’m not the only one watching the Journal’s puzzling coverage of health care reform.

New Mexico Independent columnist Arthur Alpert aptly picks up on the Albuquerque Journal’s gaming of national health care news.  In a column published in today’s Independent, Alpert points out the common Journal editorial practices of using skewed headlines and reproducing only select parts of national stories.  Alpert carefully sources his column, providing multiple pieces of evidence to support his opinion.  Go check it out, it’s a good read.

Unfortunately for readers of the Albuquerque Journal, using questionable headlines and splicing stories aren’t the only ways editors game the paper’s health care coverage.  The nonexistent firewall between editorial content and news gathering at the Journal gives editors additional tools for foisting their political agenda on readers.

Let’s start with a recent editorial, and then trace the arc of coverage – both in the news section and on the editorial page.

In an editorial published on June 17, Journal editors expressed dismay over the Veteran’s Administration treatment of sick and wounded veterans.  This is not a new story.  For all the Bush Administration’s rhetoric of troop support, they really didn’t live up to their purported values when it came to funding the VA.

Yet, the Journal used this story to bash away at “government run health care.”  Here’s the closing line…

The rest of us might start worrying about the future under a “reformed” system of health care, if this is the best the federal government can provide to meet its obligation to veterans.

Veterans Deserve Safer Medical Procedures, Albuquerque Journal, June 17, 2009.  (You may need a subscription).

That line set the tone for the following nine days of opinions and “news” on the health care reform debate.

On June 21, two guest opinions appeared on the editorial page, one from Senator Jeff Bingaman, the other from Presbyterian Healthcare Services CEO Jim Hinton.  Each piece identified well-known problems with the current system, but both steered clear of what most Americans want to know more about – namely, the public insurance option.  It’s almost as if editors began to employ the old false equivalence trick by publishing Bingaman and Hinton opinions on the same day.

The shades of false equivalence found in Sunday’s editorial page became clearer in the June 22 “Up Front” opinion by sometime reporter and sometime columnist Winthrop Quigley.

Here are the money segments of the column…

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Three Times The Journal

bowlingOnce is a mishap, twice is a coincidence, but three times makes for a pattern.  And that’s three times in the past three weeks.

I’m of course referring to the Albuquerque Journal and their incessant melding of the paper’s political agenda with its news reporting.

The Journal was at it again this week, publishing a story about the federal stimulus package on the front page of its Tuesday edition.  Large parts of the story appeared to have been borrowed from a previously published Associated Press story.

As I read Tuesday’s story, I couldn’t help but flashback to my favorite old-fashioned bowling alley.  You know, the kind where you can actually see people setting up the pins after a frame and you can actually see the ball come back out to you on a conveyor belt after you hurl it down the lane.  The whole game is laid out before you.

For me, the Tuesday story was analogous to the guys setting up the pins, placing them perfectly in preparation for waiting bowlers to knock them down.  But, I digress.

The big story in the Tuesday edition of the Albuquerque Journal questioned the existence of “shovel-ready” projects from the federal economic stimulus package.

Here’s the lead…

New Mexico’s slice of the $787 billion federal stimulus-money pie might not be as groundbreaking as expected.

The “public face” of the stimulus effort has been a worker in a hard hat, employed on a federally backed infrastructure project, The Associated Press reported nationally. But reviews of spending in New Mexico and around the country show that the phrase “shovel-ready” to describe the focus of stimulus projects probably has been overused.

In fact, in New Mexico and around the country, social spending, not construction, is in line to be the biggest winner in the ambitious federal effort to spark a sluggish economy.

“NM Stimulus Projects: Not So Shovel-Ready,” Albuquerque Journal June 9, 2009.  Click here for the full story (you may need a subscription).

There is nothing wrong with critically examining the stimulus package spending.  In fact, critical examination of the spending is crucial.  But such an examination should also include facts about how much has actually been spent thus far, the timeline of spending (as it applies to the actual onset of the current recession), the most effective way to plug state budget gaps and information about how spending on things like Medicaid, unemployment insurance and education might stem the tide of a recession.

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