Conflict of Interest and the New Journalism

File this under notable miscellany.

With the continuing decline of the traditional, conventional media, and the rise of public relations, think tanks, and the decentralizing new media, notions like conflict of interest in journalism are terribly complicated and possibly quaint. Here is a story in the Washington Post by Erik Wemple on Harvard’s Safra Center and how it is dealing with the perception problem related to conflict of interest (spoiler alert: create new entities that partner “alongside” the entity being distanced from).

On May 1 of last year, the Safra Center became something more than just a freestanding center of contemplation. Lawrence Lessig, the Safra Center’s director, launched an organization named Mayday Citizens’ SuperPac. According to one account, the idea behind Mayday was to get behind “candidates who want to reform campaign finance.” A laudable goal, perhaps, but also one that puts Lessig, who is also a Harvard University law professor and an influential thinker on technology, in the national political maw.

Even though Mayday is a creature of Lessig’s and not tied to the Safra Center, the political agenda of the center’s director created a perception problem for Williams and other Safra fellows. It’s here that Ron Suskind enters the picture. Author of several books, including the Obama White House-upending “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President,” Suskind started as the senior fellow at the Safra Center in the fall of 2012.

As Suskind tells it, this year he began having discussions with Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow about focusing academic resources to the study of what the author calls the “public narrative.” Having written volumes on the U.S. financial meltdown (“Confidence Men”), the war against terrorism (“One Percent Doctrine”) and education/opportunity (“Hope in the Unseen), Suskind had become fascinated with how “narratives” are forged. “The people at Harvard recognized that I was essentially shaping through the reportage public narratives,” says Suskind.

Voila! Suskind is now supervising the Safra Center fellows under the aegis of something called the Project on Public Narrative. In due course, this organization will grow into something bigger under the slightly different title, The Center for Public Narrative, which will be affiliated with Harvard Law School (as is the Safra Center). Though the title is a bit highfalutin for the plain language-adoring Erik Wemple Blog, the implications for people like Williams relate to ethical insulation: Under Suskind’s “narrative” tutelage, Williams no longer reports up to the super PAC-piloting Lessig; the Project on Public Narrative, says Suskind, is structurally “alongside” the Safra Center, meaning that Lessig doesn’t make hire/fire decisions or spending decisions.

The idea is to avoid the perceptions that flow from Lessig’s work with Safra and with Mayday. “For the first day or two when and after the story runs,” says Suskind, referring to the projects of his fellows, “it’s important for Brooke [a fellow and journalist] and others that they have a solid and airtight structure when and if the institutions [criticized in their stories] start to play the games they play.”

Other than showing how perception can play a role in shaping organizational structure, this story (as well as general public perception) operates under the assumption that the associations of the person who writes/contributes to a story influences the outcome of the story. This is especially interesting since we are talking about an industry that has historically espoused a “just the fact, mam” approach to history-writing. In some spheres, authors still have authority.

Secondly and tangentially, I just like the idea of a Project on Public Narrative. Public narratives are important, and we do well to make ourselves aware of the narratives that communities are working with, particularly when the community is our own. I hope this project will provide more than mere “ethical insulation” as Wemple puts it.

Read the rest here.