Conflict of interest exposed at LA Times

Diane Ravich’s blog spotlights the LA Times receipt of substantial funding from charter school supporter Eli Broad to cover education news in LA as he simultaneously invests nearly a half billion dollars on privatization efforts in the same city. Now the Times, a once proud paper that rivaled its east coast counterpart in journalistic integrity, is using its editorial pages in favor of Broad’s efforts.

Peter Sussman is an expert in the ethics of journalism. He literally wrote the book. A concerned citizen contacted him to ask him about whether it was proper for the Los Angeles Times to accept money for education coverage from Eli Broad, since his activities in education are covered by the newspaper. The editorials in the Times have been very enthusiastic about Eli’s plan to open 260 new charters for half the students in the Los Angeles public schools. The Times is careful to note that its education coverage is subsidized by a gaggle of wealthy people, including Eli Broad’s foundation.

This is not a small question. How can we have freedom of the press if billionaires buy the media and/or subsidize the coverage that directly affects their interests?

Peter Sussman responded:

Was I tagged because this is such a tough ethical issue to parse? It is not. With this kind of entanglement with the subject of its news stories, the Times has given up the right to expect any trust or credibility for its journalism on education. They are trapped in a massive conflict of interest, and no amount of pro forma disclosure will fix that. It’s so sad to see what has happened to that once-great publication.

You can add to the comment that trust and credibility are the life’s blood of journalism, and without it, a “news” organization is no different than any other partisan in public disputes, with the added problem that there is no major paper to hold it accountable, although in this case a blogger has apparently stepped into the breach. People have jeopardized and lost their jobs for defending their editorial independence and standing up to such conflicts of interest. I haven’t read the background on the issue you’ve highlighted, but if all your information is accurate, the Times’ problem extends beyond opinions to reporting, however well-intentioned their education reporters are.


–Peter Sussman, a retired longtime San Francisco Chronicle editor who is a past co-author of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. (He was co-author of the 1996 version.)