WASHINGTON — In a move that has raised questions about journalistic independence, the financially troubled United Press International this week will begin transmitting stories produced by the government's foreign news outlet to newsrooms in six European cities.
Under the two-year, $2.5-million contract, the wire service will transmit news and features produced by the United States Information Agency from Washington to 33 news organizations in Europe.
Although wire service and agency officials vow to maintain a careful separation between UPI news reports and USIA material, some journalists and journalism professors expressed concern Monday that the tie raises ethical questions and would blur the distinction between the government and the press.
'A Desperation Move'
"Everyone in journalism is sympathetic with UPI's efforts to stay alive," said James V. Risser, director of the Knight Fellowships for journalists at Stanford University. "But this appears to be a desperation move that could compromise UPI's credibility and independence as a news agency."
"At the very, very least it's confusing," said Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post. "At worst it's bad, wrong. . . . You have in effect a government subsidizing a wire service."
James Hood, a UPI vice president, defended the new arrangement, saying it would present no ethical problems because the USIA wire would have nothing to do with UPI news.
"We are simply the phone company," Hood said, emphasizing that the government's news stories will be transmitted on circuits separate from those used by UPI news services and will be printed on machines that do not carry a UPI logo.
Criticism of the contract was "terribly unfair," Hood said, and was made by "people who are not generally familiar with all the business that the wires do in this area."
Wire services, which obtain most of their revenue from the fees paid by newspapers and other clients, commonly add to that income by selling their transmission services to others, carrying what is known as "third-party traffic."
But critics argued Monday that there was a difference between selling wire space to a public relations agency and selling it to the U.S. government.
For a wire service to carry "pure unedited government material raises potential questions of collaboration," said Carl Sessions Stepp, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.
Currently, the USIA press service--known as the "wireless file"--is cabled from Washington to U.S. embassies overseas and then hand-delivered by USIA officers to newspaper and broadcasting offices in the hope that it will be used. Under the new system, which is scheduled to go into effect Friday, USIA stories will be sent directly over UPI circuits to the offices of foreign editors. Under the law, none of the agency's news or information products may be distributed in the United States.
William B. Reinckens, a USIA spokesman, said the agency chose the transmission arrangement for its "expediency and ease of delivery," as part of a larger effort to "modernize our mission, which is to tell America's story overseas."
UPI, which company officials say is losing about $1 million a month, is in the midst of a rebuilding project started last summer by its new owner, Mexican billionaire Mario Vazquez Rana. Many newspapers have dropped the wire service in recent years, and others have been persuaded to stay on only at discount rates.
"I understand that (UPI) needs revenue," said George Cotliar, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, "but this might not have been the wisest place to get it."