Was it Staffing or Censorship?
BOSTON — Last month’s removal of a Newsweek reporter just days after a press freedom group received a sizable donation raises an important question: Who is responsible for standing up for the truth — and those charged with telling it?
Newsweek dismissed reporter Jessica Kwong after she didn’t include President Donald Trump’s trip to Afghanistan in a piece about the president’s planned Thanksgiving Day activities. The story was subsequently updated and the changes were noted at the bottom of her article. But it apparently wasn’t enough for media execs.
A Newsweek spokesperson told the Washington Examiner, “The story has been corrected, and the journalist responsible has been terminated. We will continue to review our processes and, if required, take further action.”
Cases such as Kwong’s are often dismissed as an occupational hazard or a personnel issue. It may be. But it could also be another disturbing example of censorship amid complacency by so-called watchdog groups. Leaving it up to Newsweek executives to self-police is unacceptable. Yet that’s what appeared to have happened.
It’s important to note that on Nov. 27, the day before the Thanksgiving story, Kwong posted a harsh story based on ProPublica findings that showed the Trump Organization reported real estate financials to lenders that differed from what was reported to tax officials.
Kwong is not a novice; she’s an experienced, reputable journalist who during the last 15 years reported for a variety of news outlets, mostly in California. Before starting at Newsweek in September 2017, she covered the city of Santa Ana for the Orange County Register for two years and covered transportation for the San Francisco Examiner, according to her online profile.
‘INTIMIDATION AND VILIFICATION’
Ironically, Kwong’s dismissal came the same week former Fox News anchor Shepard Smith pledged $500,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists Inc. during the group’s annual dinner.
“Intimidation and vilification of the press is now a global phenomenon,” Smith told attendees of the black-tie event. “We don’t have to look far for evidence of that.”
He was right. Kwong was based in New York.
An estimated 33,000 U.S. newsroom jobs were lost during this decade, according to multiple published reports. It could be argued that press freedom groups aren’t doing enough amid the carnage wrought by industry contraction.
The CPJ isn’t assisting Kwong’s because her dismissal was a personnel issue and didn’t meet the CPJ’s criteria. CPJ spokeswoman Bebe Santa-Wood said that determination was made by a CPJ partner group, the San Francisco-based Freedom of the Press Foundation.
However, it’s significant that neither group contacted Kwong about the circumstances of her firing, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Journalism groups have the resources to do more. During 2018, the non-profit CPJ reported gross receipts of $13.6 million and an aggregate of $45.3 million during the last four years. But it spent $4.3 million last year on salaries, compensation and other employee benefits that accounted for 32 percent of its gross receipts, filings with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service show.
CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon received $270,000 in annual compensation last year. The other CPJ execs received compensation of $206,000, $199,000 and so on, the filing shows. As a result, Smith’s generous donation barely covered the pay for the group’s two highest-ranking execs.
Meanwhile, attacks on press continue. Wells Fargo had Bloomberg reporter Shahien Nasiripour removed from the banking beat after he broke several stories about the beleaguered company. Theranos Inc. hired a small army of lawyers to undermine Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou for exposing the company’s fraudulent blood testing claims. NBC News reporter Ronan Farrow reported that he was targeted by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein for Farrow’s investigation of Weinstein’s sexual predatory history. Monsanto tried to discredit Reuters reporter Carey Gillam for exposing the cancer links to his pesticides.
In July, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting posted the details about a troubling case of corporate censorship in Austin, Texas. The incident involved a New York media company that enabled Dell Technologies Inc. to delete an unflattering story from the Web and a story teaser on Twitter. When this reporter revealed details of the censorship, parent company Advance Publications Inc., also owner of The New Yorker magazine, whose editor is a CPJ board member, threatened the reporter with legal action.
Despicable, right? The response from a CPJ official was even worse. When asked for assistance — or a modicum of guidance — the official dismissively responded that the group “doesn’t get involved in labor disputes.” The response was eerily similar to the one regarding Kwong’s termination.
The last decade has brought unprecedented changes to the news industry and watchdog groups can’t operate like it’s business as usual. It’s time for action. Just a few suggested measures include:
• Media execs should be subjected to the same scrutiny as everyone else. University journalism programs could play important roles monitoring and exposing corrupt news orgs and their managers if the mainstream media is hesitant to hold each other accountable.
• NDAs shield the corrupt and enable them to escape accountability. Promote transparency by declaring any news outlet that operates with NDAs ineligible for all journalism awards — state and national.
• Reimburse rejected severance packages to encourage journalists to report wrongdoing by media companies.
• Assign lawyers to tortious interference of employment lawsuits to shine a light on unprincipled media executives and the bullies who take advantage of them.
In November, author and veteran Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi told podcaster Joe Rogan there’s been a marked decline in journalist credibility as news organizations cater to increasingly fragmented audiences. As a result the relationship reporters have with readers is much different from a decade or two ago.
“There’s a complete loss of trust,” he said. News consumers “feel like people are not being honest with them; they’re not being straight. … You can see why audiences are fleeing from this stuff.”