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Conflicts and Other Dicey Issues

July 15, 1996|JONATHAN WEBER

It was a deceptively good question, one that raised a series of issues that don't get discussed often enough among the growing legions of media reporting on the information technology revolution: "Do you think it would be a conflict," one of my freelance columnists wanted to know, "if I did some work for the Microsoft Network?"

Microsoft, in case you haven't heard, is getting into the media business, and its biggest move yet comes today with the launch of MSNBC, a 24-hour cable TV news channel and Internet news service jointly owned by Microsoft and NBC. The problem for journalists is that Microsoft plays such a dominant role in the computer industry and in many areas of new media that it's impossible to report on those subjects without reporting--frequently--on Microsoft.

The potential for conflicts of interest is clear enough, but the possible responses are trickier than they first seem.

Take the high road, thump your chest about integrity, and deny talented and underpaid writers the right to work for a company that's currently hiring journalists by the busload? Or not, and thereby erase some of the guidelines that most mainstream media have attempted, however feebly, to operate by in recent years? The easiest remedy--full disclosure of possible conflicts--isn't very appealing if a disclaimer has to appear almost every week.

And once you start wondering about the issue of commercial influence in reporting and writing about new information technologies, two other questions quickly arise: Can Microsoft, as half-owner of a news operation that will devote extensive resources to covering the technology world, cover itself? And can the media in general, from traditional newspapers to start-up online news services, sustain an adequate separation between reporting on new technologies and promoting them for business reasons?

These are not entirely new questions: Many news organizations, including NBC, are already owned by big corporations. Business publications in general, moreover, and the trade press in particular have long been considered by many to be too close to the businesses they cover.

And even though most major news organizations try to sustain what's known as the "separation of church and state," much of the public, I suspect, is not convinced of our ability to keep business considerations from influencing editorial decisions.

But the much-discussed "convergence" of the computer, communications, entertainment and media industries is rendering the conflict-of-interest problem much more acute.

The Microsoft situation, though a special case, is important because of the scope of the company's media ambitions, the extraordinary position it occupies in several key industries and the fact that MSNBC will be doing so much technology news. NBC may be owned by General Electric, but the network doesn't spend an hour a night on the locomotive business or electric power generation. Walt Disney-owned ABC and Time Warner-owned Time cover entertainment news, but even those powerful parent companies don't enjoy the level of clout that Microsoft does in technology.

Furthermore, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates can be very thin-skinned. During the federal government's lengthy antitrust investigation of Microsoft, for example, Gates often became furious with journalists for even raising the issue, as if the probe were somehow not a legitimate subject of inquiry.

Despite Michael Kinsley's overwrought effort to prove that his new Microsoft-owned electronic magazine has full editorial independence--the first issue featured a forum on the question "Does Microsoft Play Fair?"--it's difficult, for this reporter at least, to envision the MSNBC doing tough stories on Microsoft.

Microsoft and NBC executives point out that NBC will have full editorial control of the new venture. And they say the issue is no different than it is with any other corporate-owned news operation--which of course is exactly the problem. Most media companies, this one included, don't even attempt to cover themselves, and many do a poor job covering their industries. Why would Microsoft be any different?

More broadly, as Ken Auletta has argued in the New Yorker, the culture of big multimedia conglomerates is in many ways antithetical to good journalism. Sustaining the "church-state" division gets more complicated as the sources of conflict multiply and business pressures grow.

In most news organizations these days, editorial innovations--like The Cutting Edge--now have to demonstrate that they're viable businesses as well as interesting and informative reading. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, and in a healthy newsroom environment, it's actually not so hard to avoid the obvious danger of giving editorial favor to advertisers.

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