News Media Independence

–Nice. Who paid for that?–

I just read Now Lebanon’s explanation for why they pulled their recent editorial (and then restored it). For the record, I think their point is fair: If an editorial does not represent the publication’s point of view, the publication has the right not to publish it. That said, once a piece is published, unpublishing it becomes wrong, if for the only pragmatic reason that it will attract more attention to it.

I and others gave NOW Lebanon a hard time this week and perhaps unfairly so. As Zaher noted, the big picture is that the news site is heading towards an interesting new direction of independence and professionalism. While I noticed the same thing (I did read refreshingly independent pieces in NOW recently), and while I hold NOW and its writers to the highest of standards, I don’t believe they are there yet.

Follow the Money

NOW is making assertions about independence that I don’t believe hold water. The truth is, you cannot claim real independence without being completely transparent about your finances. I wrote the same thing to Al-Mayadeen TV recently:

I don’t have a problem with [news media being] funded by interest groups or people. Knowing that Future TV is funded by the Hariri family or that France 24 is funded by the french tax payer allows me to know where they’re coming from and helps me see conflicts of interests.

But when you’re opaque about your [...] funding and make empty promises about objectivity and independence, you freak me out. I’d rather watch Official Syrian TV. At least you know where they’re coming from.

Now Lebanon employs talented people from investigative journalists to star writers to technicians. It has a physical location so it pays rent. It also has a fair amount of web traffic so it needs decent hosting and perhaps in-house servers. All this costs money, and It’s important to be completely open about where this money is coming from.

We as readers have the right to ask ourselves: Someone out there is paying tens of thousands of dollars monthly for a news publication. What is that person/party expecting to get in return? Which topics constitute conflict of interest to that party?

I am proud for calling myself independent, and maybe it’s easy because I’m just a small-scale blogger. But I will walk my talk:

Beirut Spring yearly cost of operation

Domain cost:        $   38.00
Hosting plan:       $  119.40
Volunteer Writer:   $    0.00
            TOTAL:  $  157.40

Those $157.40 came from my own pocket. I pay more for coffee per year than to run this blog. I have my biases of course, biases that I hope come across in my writing. But when I want to call a spade a spade, I’m glad I’m not financially beholden to anyone who wants me to call it something else.

Now Lebanon Kills Blog Post Showing Lebanese Leaders Kissing

This morning while browsing Now Lebanon’s blog I saw a post (now removed, but you can see a screenshot I took here) featuring a Lebanese version of the now-infamous Benetton unhate campaign, with a couple of posters that pair together Lebanese politicians in a similar kind of steamy embrace.

I said to myself: There’s no way this is going to stay here. I was sure Now Lebanon was going to kill it (after all, they’ve done it before). So I wrote a comment on that post saying “let’s see how long those will last”.

My comment never showed up (but you can find it in the cache). The post was removed less than an hour later. At the time of the page’s removal, the post was seen around 6500 times. What was seen cannot be unseen.

Update: I wrote a follow-up post speculating on why it was censored.