Dear Reader: You Should Know That We Have a Conflict of Interest Here

With Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, now about to also own Whole Foods, will the Post’s Food section have to tread more carefully when writing about supermarkets?

While editing the Washingtonian, I had to make a decision that caused me to think about the journalism ethics of publishing or not publishing something critical of Whole Foods.

Whole Foods had come to the Washington area, breaking the hold that the more mass-market chains, Giant and Safeway, had on food buying. Whole Foods seemed higher quality, more health conscious, perfect for upwardly mobile Washingtonians willing to pay higher prices.

A story came through that mentioned Whole Foods and the writer had added, parenthetically, “or as my friends call it Whole Paycheck.”

By then the area’s Whole Food stores were selling a decent number of newsstand copies of the Washingtonian. We  were sending Giant about 25,000 newsstand copies a month and it was selling about 15,000. We were sending Whole Foods, which had fewer stores, about 10,000 newsstand copies and it was selling about 8,000.

Do we let the “Whole Paycheck” reference go through, probably making readers smile but possibly angering Whole Foods and endangering the monthly sale of 8,000 newsstand copies?

I edited it out, sending the writer a note that we were always willing to go after companies such as Whole Foods on matters of substance—say, a story about food prices—but not necessarily on matters of style, no matter how clever the reference might be.

In other words, I thought the Whole Paycheck reference was the writer showing off, possibly angering Whole Foods and the sale of 8,000 newsstand copies a month just for the fun of it.

Good luck, Washington Post editors, sorting out the ethical dimensions of writing about issues that affect the increasing reach of Jeff Bezos. You’re likely have to be adding a lot more of those parenthetical full disclosures about possible conflicts of interest.
6-17-17 Update: The Post’s page one story today, “Amazon-Whole Foods deal rattles the grocery industry,” has this disclosure at the end of the fifth graf: (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)





  1. I feel it’s weird. The commoditization and hegemony of our humble consumer culture by ravenous conglomerates.

    Some day there will simply be one GIGANTIC conglomerate. Sucks.

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