Caveat Lector (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Jul. 14, 2014 12:00 am  

A health care professional emailed a link to an article a few days back. The subject line said, “Read what Forbes is saying about Arkansas PO,” meaning the “private option” alternative to Medicaid expansion.

I read the article analyzing the primary runoff defeat of Rep. John Burris headlined “Private Option Architect Loses Election, Is Medicaid Expansion Turning Toxic for State Lawmakers?” It was interesting, especially if you aren’t too concerned about nuance. For instance, saying Arkansas’ private option “just barely squeaked by … without a single vote to spare in the Senate” is technically correct, but a casual reader might not realize that just squeaking by meant getting a super-duper majority of 75 percent in both houses of the General Assembly.

I pointed out to my correspondent that Forbes wasn’t really saying this about the Arkansas private option; three guys who work for a conservative free-market think tank called the Foundation for Government Accountability were. It said so right there on their joint byline. One of them was identified as a regular “contributor” to Forbes and, as the fine print by the article says, “Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.”

That’s one of the problems with online news sites: You have to make an effort to rightly divide the information brought to you by journalists and the opinions brought to you by contributors, and it’s not as easy as it is on, say, the Views pages of Arkansas Business or the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

As for the Foundation for Government Accountability guys, I’ve got no problem with their making their case against the private option and drawing their conclusions from events here in Arkansas. It just bothered me that people might mistake their talking points for something reported and written by Forbes.

At a convention of business publishers I attended last month, an expert in social media hailed Forbes.com as a particularly successful online news model. It has 1,200 contributors regularly churning out fresh new content on a regular basis, he said — a breathtaking figure that Forbes.com had reported last summer, calling them all “hand-picked.”

Hand-picked, perhaps, but who do they work for — readers or special interest groups? Forbes has 45 staff writers, or did last August, but even if each staff writer produces 10 times as much as a contributor, there would be two and a half times as much material coming from outside than from inside. Is that what you expect when you read Forbes.com?

When I asked the workshop presenter how Forbes could possibly maintain any kind of quality control over 1,200 non-payroll contributors, he looked at me like I had two heads. (Memo to self: Social media experts are not editors.)

Another news website that gets a lot of attention among business types is Business Insider. With a name like that, it has to be legit, right? If you read the “About” page on BusinessInsider.com, you’ll find this description of its mission: “Business Insider is dedicated to aggregating, reporting, and analyzing the top news stories across the web and delivering them to you at rapid-fire pace.” Aggregation — that is, gathering up material that others have produced — comes first.

What’s more, the editor-in-chief of Business Insider is one Henry Blodget, former Merrill Lynch analyst who in 2003 was charged with fraud by the Securities & Exchange Commission. He eventually settled for a $2 million fine, $2 million disgorgement and a permanent ban from the investment industry. So now he’s an online editor whose hard-hitting headlines last week included “14 Awesome Trading Desks From Around the World” and “A New Dress Shirt Solves the Annoyance of a Floppy Collar.”

Caveat lector: Let the reader beware.

***

The most exciting part of the Alliance of Area Business Publishers convention in Baltimore was the two gold awards that Senior Editor Mark Friedman scored for reporting he did last year. His story on the late Dr. Stacey Johnson’s $14.7 million Medicare fraud was judged to be the best scoop of 2013 among the large business tabloids that are members of AABP (placing ahead of the Los Angeles Business Journal and Crain’s New York). His story explaining the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that shut down a class-action litigation strategy that made a few Texarkana lawyers exceptionally wealthy was judged the best coverage of a national business story among all 57 AABP members — large and small tabloids and magazines alike.

I can’t claim to be a hand-picked Forbes contributor or a business insider, but I work with Mark Friedman and he represents the kind of journalism I want to be associated with.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.

 

 

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