The Washington Post Company does not understand disclosure

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

The Nation's Ari Melber notes that Yuval Levin, formerly an aide in George W. Bush's domestic policy shop, is Newsweek's editor of national affairs, in which position he has written that liberals must "pull back to the center--or suffer the consequences." And warned of "Obama fatigue." And suggested the stimulus package passed earlier this year should have contained a "meaningful tax-cut component." (Melber notes that in fact the stimulus contained $280 billion in tax cuts, which seems pretty meaningful to me.)And in June, Levin co-wrote a column with Bill Kristol, declaring "ObamaCare is wrong. It should and can be defeated."

In March, a piece Levin wrote for Newsweek identified him as a "Bush veteran." But more his more recent bylines have described him simply as "editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center," so Melber asked Newsweek why Levin's partisan background is no longer disclosed. Here's the response he got from a Newsweek spokesperson:

Levin's previous article for Newsweek involved the issue of bioethics, his primary focus while at the White House. He disclosed his prior position in the body of that piece. His most recent article was not related to that topic. We believe our readers are aware of Mr. Levin's background, and are able to discern a reported news article from argument, which Levin's recent piece was. (Emphasis added.)

This is absolute nonsense. There isn't one person in a hundred who knows Yuval Levin worked in the Bush White House. Is there even one person in a thousand? In ten thousand? And how many know he co-authors attacks on "ObamaCare" with Bill Kristol and contributes to National Review Online?

Newsweek's apparent belief that because they disclosed Levin's background once, long ago, all of their readers have committed his resume to memory reminded me of Anne Applebaum's recent defense of her failure to disclose the fact that her husband is an official in the Polish government who was lobbying for leniency for Roman Polanski while she was writing in support of the same.

Applebaum, a columnist for Newsweek's sibling publication, the Washington Post, wrote: "For the record, I will note that I mentioned my husband's job in a column as recently as last week, and that when he first entered the Polish government three years ago I wrote a column about that too. I have to assume that the bloggers who have leapt upon this as some kind of secret revelation are simply unfamiliar with my writing."

As I explained at the time:

This is nonsense. If a conflict exists, it isn't sufficient to disclose it once. It must be disclosed every time it is relevant. Applebaum seems to assume that Washington Post readers make a mental catalogue of every Post reporter and columnist, their relationships, and their conflicts of interest. That anyone who ever reads anything she writes will take it upon themselves to keep a running tally of her conflicts, so she need disclose them only once. That, obviously, is not going to happen. And it displays a stunning arrogance -- she thinks everyone who reads her column cares enough about her to know where her husband works.

Finally, she's misstating the nature of what she mocks as the "secret revelation." The criticism wasn't that her husband is an employee of the Polish government. Nobody cares about that. It's that her husband is a Polish government official who is currently lobbying for the very thing Applebaum is arguing in favor of. Surely she understands the difference?

(For the record, Applebaum had another, much better, defense of her failure to disclose her husband's lobbying for Polanski: she says she didn't know he was doing it.)

And then there's Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post media critic with the lucrative side-job hosting a television show for CNN. He's promised to disclose his financial relationship with CNN every time he writes about the cable news giant -- but he doesn't do so. Not even close.

What Kurtz, Levin, and Applebaum have in common -- besides a corporate parent -- is the apparent belief that as long as they disclose potential conflicts of interests once, anyone who ever reads anything they write will be completely aware of their background. That is obviously foolish -- not to mention arrogant. This may be hard for Washington Post Company journalists to believe, but most readers have more important things to do than to memorize the life story of every reporter whose reporting they might encounter.

The Washington Post, Newsweek
Anne Applebaum, Howard Kurtz, Ari Melber, Yuval Levin
The Nation
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