On Wednesday, the New York Times wrote about a Google-funded think tank terminating an entire team run by an anti-monopoly scholar who was critical of Google’s practices. It is an important story about how corporate interests, by virtue of their position inside key outlets of communication, can influence what information flows to the general public.
Now, The New York Times Company, the newspaper’s governing body, needs to figure out what to do about a similar problem at its own publication.
On Tuesday, ride-sharing company Uber announced the hiring of Dara Khosrowshahi as its new CEO, replacing Travis Kalanick. Khosrowshahi, an Iranian immigrant, previously spent 12 years as CEO of travel company Expedia.
He is also a member of the board of directors of the Times Company, a position he has held since 2015.
After the announcement, Times reporter Mike Isaac wrote a lengthy tick-tock of the Khosrowshahi hiring, but he did not disclose that the new CEO was a member of the Times Company’s board. The paper did disclose the relationship in other profiles of Khosrowshahi.
Linda Zebian, the Times Company’s executive director of communications, released a statement to The Intercept: “The fact that Dara Khosrowshahi is a board member of The New York Times Company will indeed be disclosed in every relevant article moving forward (the fact that it was not disclosed in the Aug. 29 article was an error, which we regret).” She added that “Mr. Khosrowshahi’s appointment will have no impact on our Uber coverage,” which suggests the new Uber CEO will not be stepping down from the board anytime soon.
As long as Khosrowshahi stays in place, questions will inevitably be raised about the paper’s deeper enterprise reporting into Uber’s business practices. The Times has generally done a credible job in covering Uber. It has broken unflattering news, such as venture capital firm Benchmark suing Kalanick and the use of a secret program called “Greyball” to deceive legal authorities who banned the service in certain locations. It has reported on a woman in India who was raped by an Uber driver and the company’s efforts to cover it up. A large interactive spread on Uber’s “psychological tricks” to boost ridership ran in April.
But none of those pieces were published while Uber had a presence on the Times Company’s board. And it will be difficult to gauge the organization’s transparency going forward without being privy to internal deliberations among the editorial staff.
The Times Company’s board of directors resembles most boards of publicly traded companies, featuring heavy doses of corporate interests. In addition to Khosrowshahi, leaders of three investment firms and a vice president with insurance giant AIG sit on the board. Furthermore, the one-time CEO of Pandora, a former executive vice president at Verizon, and an ex-vice president at Facebook also have seats. Robert Denham, a partner at the large law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, sits on the boards of both the Times Company and Chevron.
What sets this board apart from others is that is presides over an organization whose mission is to report, at times aggressively, on the very companies its board members represent. This discomfort was at the heart of why the New America Foundation fired Barry Lynn, the director of its Open Markets Program, for criticizing Google, a top funder.
There’s no indication the Times suppresses stories because of its board relationships. But at least one of them is worthy of attention. Last April, Verizon workers went on strike in the largest labor walkout in four years, and the Times saw fit to mention it only when then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders went out on the picket line during his campaign. Doreen Toben, the former Verizon executive on the Times Company’s board, left the telecom firm in 2009.
That gets at the bigger questions raised by the composition of the Times Company’s board. Rather than choose mostly public interest leaders or academics, as the publisher of the Tampa Bay Times has done, the company selected leading managers and investors for its board, which suggests a certain comfort with that milieu. According to a New York Times media kit for advertisers, the median household income for readers is $163,000 a year.
The Times has always claimed a hard separation between its business and editorial sides. But the environment in which the company operates could easily have an implicit bearing on story selection and devotion of resources. At the very least the connections should be consistently disclosed, which the company has promised to do.
Similar questions dogged Arianna Huffington, who sat on the Uber board when she was editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post.