Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The watchdog rolls over, plays dead

Nebraska Watchdog, a political-news website, is blazing a journalistic trail in the United States today.

Unfortunately for it and for the rest of us, the trail ends at the edge of a cliff, and it's a one-way thoroughfare.

In the name of "objectivity," the website said last August that "in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest," it wouldn't cover the gubernatorial race because Republican candidate Pete Ricketts is one of its major financial contributors.
Perhaps because we have publicized it on our website since our 2009 launch, many of our readers know Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts is a founding contributor to the non-profit Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, of which Nebraska Watchdog is a part.

As you may also know, speculation is growing that Ricketts may soon enter the 2014 Nebraska governor’s race.

It is important to note that no donor to the Franklin Center, and there are many, have any editorial control over Nebraska Watchdog’s content.

However because of Ricketts’ financial relationship with the Franklin Center, Nebraska Watchdog has decided not to report on the governor’s campaign while Ricketts is a likely or actual candidate.
AND THAT'S exactly what has happened. Nebraska Watchdog hasn't reported on the race. The gubernatorial race. Because a disclaimer at the end of every story on the governor's race wouldn't be sufficient?

Because scrupulously fair and balanced coverage, combined with a disclaimer at the end of every story on the Nebraska governor's race wouldn't be enough to quash scurrilous talk about the "appearance of a conflict of interest"?

When a "news" site abandons its fundamental mission -- covering the news, and voters deciding who will be the next leader of their state seems like reasonably big news to me -- it begs a couple of questions. First, is it really true that "no donor to the Franklin Center, and there are many, have any editorial control over Nebraska Watchdog’s content"? Or is Watchdog managing editor Joe Jordan merely really, really afraid of what would happen to his operating expenses (or his future employment) if his reporting on Sarah Palin's favorite Nebraska gubernatorial candidate went somewhere a major sugar daddy didn't want it to go?

Oh, did I mention that the notoriously right-wing Koch brothers also are major donors to the Franklin Center?

Second, has Jordan's no-coverage stance made him boss of a news outlet which will end up with little to do and less reason to exist? If Pete Ricketts wins in November -- which he likely will in this bright-red state -- will Nebraska Watchdog, by that no-appearance-whatsoever-of-a-conflict-of-interest reasoning be unable to cover any political story to which Ricketts is somehow connected? Will there be zero coverage of the executive branch of Nebraska's state government, no reporting on the governor's legislative agenda, no mention of bills the governor has threatened to veto . . . or bills the governor says he'll sign?

Joe Jordan
WHEN EVERY story dealing with a major donor is too hot to handle, and when that major donor happens to get himself elected governor, what then? If logic and consistency is as important to the Nebraska Watchdog chief as not looking bad (no matter how bad that makes you look), he may have backed himself into an inescapable corner.

And we thought there was an inherent conflict between business and editorial functions in the advertising-supported media. Now it's looking like the non-profit mode -- when it relies on corporate or individual sugar daddies -- may be even more problematic.

That's a fine mess Joe Jordan has gotten himself into.

If this is how Nebraska Watchdog rolls, and how it will continue to roll, perhaps the Watchdog has had its day already. And perhaps the time has come to quit while it's behind . . . the eight ball.

HAT TIP: Romenesko.

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