Thursday, June 21, 2007

Principals, agents and journalists 

Everyone and his mother-in-law, it seems, is linking to the MSNBC story of journalists who made political donations. While it seems fashionable to bash a particular journalist for giving money -- and, no surprise, mostly to Democrats -- Ed Morrissey asks a probing question.
Why should journalists have to trade away their rights to political expression in order to work in the media? They are Americans, after all. Again, in this instance, it's exactly like the BCRA; it strips a fundamental right of political assembly and speech from a segment of American society. Regardless of how one feels about bias in the media, that approach is fundamentally wrong.
There are, however, many rights we trade away in return for certain jobs. Athletes have contracts that prohibit activities that put their bodies at risk (Ben Roethlisberger says hi, Ed.) Some individuals who perform personal services give up speech rights as well, which is after all what campaign contributions are.

What's worth probing in Ed's question is why some news organizations would have rules against political contributions. I don't think it's necessarily an act of stupidity. News organizations sell themselves as agents (the journalists) to provide information to the principals (the readers) that is to be reliable. Because there is asymmetric information -- the journalist usually in fact DOES know more about a particular story than the readers, sometimes even more than the blogger -- there is a potential conflict of interest. The journalist can filter the news to turn a story that is sold by his bosses to be "truth" into propaganda. Media owners hire editors, ombudsmen, etc., to represent to the readers that someone has vetted an article and that it contains truthiness. To help with that representation, the newspaper may contract with journalists who sign pledges to waive their right to make political contributions, just as a ballplayer might waive his right to privacy and allow someone to randomly command a urine or blood sample.

While I see no reason why a journalist always must sign away that right to make contributions, I also so no reason why a media owner has to hire someone who would not sign a contract that banned the behavior as a condition of employment. The newspaper is the owner's property, and he has the right to entrust its reputation to those he chooses, since the loss of reputation is something borne by the owner.

Any such restrictions are of course imperfect; there will be chiselers. But technology will also influence the prevalence of such arrangements. When the blogosphere and other independent watchers can investigate who made contributions to whom, newspaper owners may feel more or less compelled to hire reporters with the restrictive covenant against contributions. If the reader can judge for himself the preferences of the reporter, he can adjust his reading as well. Since I would only sign the covenant in return for some consideration -- likely, additional money or perks -- the owner has an incentive to not impose the covenant if it is duplicative of private information produced by others. I can't predict which way newspapers and television news will turn in the age of abundant information.

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