Last week, a colleague excitedly emailed me about an opinion piece on Crosscut about Initiative 1098 (the progressive income tax initiative) which hammered Microsoft for its Nevada tax dodge on many of the points previously mentioned on this blog:
"Microsoft's behavior regarding B&O taxes — dodging them for years by doing their licensing from Nevada — has been shameful. The state's failure to call them on it has been shameful. Last session's legislation legitimizing this was shameful."
However, by the time I read the editorial, the quote was gone. This concerned me as I've had trouble getting Seattle's journalism community to cover Microsoft's thirteen year billion dollar Nevada tax dodge. It may concern you too because Crosscut has relied heavily on $500,000 in grants from the Gates Foundation over the past year. Is there a conflict of interest at play? Additionally, the author of the editorial, Ed Lazowska, holds the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.
I contacted Crosscut's publisher David Brewster via email to ask him about the post-publication edit as well as Director Lazowska. I asked each for an on the record response that I could publish.
Disclaimers: I invested $5,000 in Crosscut when it first started as a for profit. It later converted to a nonprofit entity (the investment was converted to a donation). I have written on Microsoft's tax dodge previously for Crosscut (here & here). I'm also a former Microsoft Group Program Manager. I consider myself a friend and colleague to Brewster et al. in the Crosscut community.
Q: Can you explain why the quote was removed?
Brewster: I thought it was too extraneous, and needs much more reporting and context, so took it out on further reflection, and with Ed's concurrence.
Q: Can you explain the post publication corrections policy at Crosscut or why this edit was made post publication?
Brewster: No real policy. We often change stories after they are first put up, or as second thoughts become first thoughts.
Q: Could you tell me if this is a statement that you wrote and whether it's something you still stand behind?
Lazowska: The statement doesn't have anything to do with 1098. I also don't feel that it's a defensible statement.
I'm not an expert in journalistic practice but none of these responses erased my doubts. Post-publication edits in a major online news site should be done with great care and transparency. Given that this was an opinion piece, the relevance of contextual reporting and defensibility seems less important. I don't understand why Lazowska would allow something to be published that he didn't think was defensible in the first place. If you read this blog, you know those comments are defensible.
As investigative and online community journalism is increasingly funded by private foundation funds, it's important that the same ethical guidelines separating funders from coverage apply. While the Gates Foundation is not likely involved in editorial decisions at Crosscut, their support seems to be having an impact on what gets written on the site.
When I wrote an April Fools Piece on Microsoft's Tax Dodge for Crosscut earlier this year, Brewster removed a paragraph about the Gates Foundation: "The Experience Music Project will be razed to provide additional parking for the Gates Foundation, which will move its executive offices to the top of the Space Needle. A zip line will be installed from there to the foundation entrance." (The Foundation is building a new office on formerly public land at Seattle Center). I don't feel it's fair to quote Brewster's email to me from that time in this piece. However, he expressed that the Gates Foundation might have been unfairly dragged into the story. I felt uncomfortable about the change then - but felt it was more important that the piece get out there.
The edited paragraph (without the Gates Foundation mention) was changed to: "Seattle Center will be transformed. The Experience Music Project will be razed to make room for a new retail store, the Experience Microsoft Project, designed jointly by local glass artist Dale Chihuly and architect of the popular Seattle Public Library, Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas’ design also calls for a glass helipad atop the Needle and a zip line down to a new private airstrip, for which a portion of Memorial Stadium and McCaw Hall will be relocated."
In retrospect, Crosscut would have been in the final stages of receiving approval for the $400,000 July 2010 grant when my April 1st piece was published.
I have incredible respect for Brewster and the Crosscut team ... but I do not think that this reflects well on the organization or its capacity to effectively perform investigative work in our community. I hope that some thought is given to making the editorial process more transparent.
I also think this raises solid issues for discussion about funding of nonprofit community news sites by foundations who often have a vested interest in coverage.