NYTimes Conflict

I recently Googled “New York Times” and “conflict of interest.” Ignoring the stories about other people’s conflicts, i.e. the Minerals Management Service, the result produces the Times’ “Policy on Ethics and Journalism.” It fills 21 computer screens in 10-point type (8-point for the first two screens of outline). It ranges from the obvious: “Staff members who borrow equipment, vehicles or other goods for evaluation or review must return them as soon as possible”; to the what occasioned that provision: “In a radio, television, telephonic or online appearance, or any other public forum, we should avoid strident, theatrical vehicles that emphasize punditry or reckless opinionmongering.” I assume that provision means no Times people are allowed to appear on Fox.

It was a relief to know that Times’ reporters are allowed to vote and to register with a political party.

My foray into conflict issues arose after I read “Times Standards, Staffer or Not,” a column by the previous reader representative published in January. Clark Hoyt used three dismissed freelancers as examples.

The first was a member of the Harvard faculty who had been dropped as a columnist because a company paid her expenses to visit one of its offices. The Times recruited her and had already published her first column when she received the conflict of interest questionnaire.

The others were travel writers, one who plied airline magazines for tickets, the other who took a paid trip to Jamaica.

The dismissal in examples two and three raise no issues. Respectable newspapers and magazines do not allow people to take money from a source. Papers reimburse staff writers for meals, travel, and so forth. If one is working as a freelancer, then those costs are deducted as business expenses but never charged to the subject of the story. Theater and music tickets have been a source of debate at smaller places, but the bigger papers bought the tickets for those events as well.

The example of the Harvard professor is more troubling. I understand Hoyt’s point that the paper must avoid even the appearance of impropriety but this situation is borderline.

The Times recruited Mary Tripsas to write columns on “corporate innovation.” The first column was in print by the time the conflict of interest questionnaire arrived. After she started writing 3M paid her expenses for a trip to St. Paul, Minn., to evaluate its “customer innovation center.” She had routinely performed these functions in her position as professor at the business school. After she returned from the trip she pitched a column on the subject, and the Times published it. Neither Tripsas nor her editor thought a problem existed. Hoyt doesn’t mention who raised the issue of conflict, but Tripsas was fired after that column appeared.

Another former columnist objected to the Times’ standards, pointing out the unfairness of holding freelancers and staffers to the same standards. The paper does not subsidize the research. The rates of compensation should be commensurate with the ethical demands.

If the Times (and other publications) compensated freelancers adequately fewer problems would arise. Since rates have been falling rather than rising, I predict problems will increase as well.

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