The Crumbling Fourth Estate

If any of you watch 60 Minutes, you may be aware of the controversy surrounding Greg Mortenson, who wrote Three Cups of Tea and founded the Central Asia Institute, which seeks to spread educational opportunities for girls in Afghanistan. Greg has been accused of “telling some stretchers,” as a friend of mine put it, in Three Cups of Tea, as well as using the CAI as “his own personal ATM,” according to Jon Krakauer who recently published an online book, Three Cups of Deceit.

Greg and his family live right here in Bozeman, Mont. And a couple of my friends and colleagues have gone to Afghanistan with Greg to do work for the CAI. One of these friends is Karin Ronnow, who is also city editor for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Karin is currently getting a lot of unfriendly flack from national media watchdogs for having both jobs.

I’m not going to dispute there was a conflict of interest there. The point I want to bring out is that Karin is not alone in looking for work outside of her newspaper job. The newspaper industry’s financial woes are well-chronicled and those of us who still have jobs as journalists are damn lucky and damn few. Still, those jobs don’t pay very well and unless we are independently wealthy or have a spouse who makes a good living, we’ve got to look for outside work to get by. I know I do.

Potential conflicts abound for journalists who can’t afford to have just one job. Even if they work for Home Depot on the weekends, there is a potential conflict of interest — and there oftentimes isn’t the staff or the resources to put someone else on a story about a given reporter or photographer’s part-time job or boss.

Let’s realize that this isn’t just Karin’s problem. It’s the journalism industry’s problem. Publishers who care about their product as much as their profit are getting very hard to find. And that’s our problem as citizens if we want to have news sources we can trust.

The Fourth Estate is crumbling. This is just the most recent brick to fall.

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