The Washington Post ran a de facto Facebook press release in its op-ed section today. It was a bizarre decision; the newspaper's already embroiled in one ethics scandal, so why cuddle up to a close, public friend of the paper?
It's hard to dispute that Mark Zuckerberg's op-ed was a softball, long on propaganda and short on news. As we reported earlier, the Facebook CEO sidestepped many of the recent, news-making controversies his company has sparked. Instead, he said the social network should do a better job of organizing privacy settings and would get to work on some unspecified changes to the controls. He didn't address Facebook's recent accidental privacy breaches, or the numerous instances in which Facebook has pushed, and in some cases forced, users to take some of their personal information public.
But don't take our word for it. Here's what some other commentators said: "Nonapology" was how Peter Kafka at All Things D described the piece. "What's more important is what's not being said," said Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb. "Something's amiss," said Jared Newman at PC World. TechCrunch noticed a decided lack of meat. "More of an acknowledgment that Facebook has heard the criticism and will be responding to it," was Jason Kincaid's verdict there. "PR-speaky," said Rachel Sklar at Mediaite.
But even by the partisan standards of the Washington, DC Beltway, where mutual back-scratching and puffed-up propaganda are par for the course, the piece seemed awfully empty.
While the op-ed might not have done much for Washington Post readers, it certainly helped Facebook. An opinion piece in one of the nation's most prestigious newspapers carries more moral authority than a blog post on Facebook.com. And Facebook doesn't want for anything so much as moral authority these days.
But why did WaPo play along? Well, the most obvious answer is the least polite one: Donald Graham, the CEO of the Washington Post Company, enjoys an awfully close relationship with Zuckerberg. He sits on Facebook's board. But more than that, he's been a mentor to the 26-year-old CEO, as documented repeatedly in Facebook news articles and books, including, most recently, David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect. That book has a passage in which Zuckerberg breaks down on a bathroom floor at the thought of turning down an investment from Graham, whom he idolizes (the scene is quoted here)
And it appears Graham has been plenty eager to help Zuckerberg's company. Reading press clippings last year, one could even get the impression the WaPo honcho was a sort of press consigliere for the startup founder. There he was last year in Fortune, accompanying Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and investor Alexander Tamas on an interview with Jessi Hempel. There he was accompanying the same duo to a meeting with PaidContent. And why not? As Kirkpatrick has reported in Fortune, Zuckerberg "counts Washington Post Co. CEO Don Graham as a friend."
Fair enough. But wouldn't Zuckerberg's op-ed have all the more credibility in another newspaper, then? And wouldn't the Washington Post, which just emerged from another ethical scandal, have all the more credibility if that had happened as well?
Yes, the Post tacked a small disclosure underneath Zuckerberg's op-ed, mentioning that Graham sat on the Facebook board. But disclosing a conflict of interest that's plain as day doesn't make it any less disturbing, especially by the WaPo's historically high editorial standards (longtime editor Len Downie was famous for refusing to even vote, lest it sully his objectivity). The conflict looks especially egregious wrapped around such puffy content.
Of course, Don Graham is free to run whatever content he wants in his family's newspaper. But if he's going to advise Zuckerberg on how to beat an ethical path into the future, he might consider setting a better example.