A Robust Future for Conflict of Interest
Conflict of interest has become a signature element in the claim by Internetbased commentators to moral superiority over their legacy news media counterparts. The insistence of so-called mainstream journalists that they are free not just of private material entanglements but of personal sympathies that might tilt their reporting and commentary is brandished as a prime exhibit in the indictment of the media establishment as hypocritical, secretly biased, and unworthy of public trust.1
Much of the criticism comes under the banner of transparency and accountability and centers on narrow matters such as alleged partisan leanings among reporters. That trivializes the matter. The exuberant rise of New Media and the steady collapse of established media business models are raising issues related to independence and conflict of interest in much more profound ways than allegations over mere campaign giving would imply.
As I will suggest, innovations such as online advertising tied to specific editorial content, highly targeted Web sites intended to nurture demographically attractive micro-publics, nonprofit funding of editorial initiatives, and an increase in amateur or non-full-time journalists are all potentially problematic in ways that pre-Internet formulations of conflict of interest do not fully anticipate.
So, conflict of interest has a bright future. It also has an illustrious past. Indeed, it is virtually a cultural archetype of journalistic corruption: the business writer who covers a company in which she owns shares, the politics reporter who accepts a weekend junket from a wealthy office-seeker, the publisher who kills an embarrassing story about an advertiser arrested in an anti-prostitution sweep, the media company that diverts resources to promotional coverage of the products of a corporate affiliate.