Dynamist Blog

Saying It Over and Over Doesn't Make It True: The NYT's "Ethics" Rules Cont'd

Exactly what do the NYT's ethics rules cover? The New York Observer refers to "freelancers who accept freebies/payment from the people they cover." Last Sunday's NYT Public Editor column, which was devoted to letters from readers and responses from management, included this statement from Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, says:

We can't afford to put everyone who writes a book review or a travel article on full-time staff. If we stopped using freelancers to supplement our staff reporting we would deprive our readers of much interesting material (and deprive freelancers of both income and a prestigious outlet). And if we let freelancers take freebies from people they write about, we would compromise the integrity that people demand of The Times.

This suggests a rather narrow policy: Don't take any money from someone you write about in the Times and don't write about anyone you've taken money from. But the "ethics" rules, at least as a lot of current, former, and potential contributors--and employees--understand them, are much broader. And they have exactly the effect Keller fears. They "deprive [NYT] readers of much interesting material."

As laid out in the author's questionnaire that is appended to the contract that in turn subsumes the paper's ethics guidelines, the rules control a lot more than what you write for the Times or how you behave when representing the paper. A frequent contributor tells me that the current contract requires a yes/no answer to a question asking whether the writer "at any time in the past, in any context" accepted, in the writer's paraphrase, "any form of reimbursement, expenses or compensation from basically anyone I might in the future have any reason to write about." If you choose to leave the question blank, you do not get paid. This writer and I assume that a "yes" answer would be disqualifying.

So if a travel writer let a hotel comp him a room, even 20 years ago, at a place he'd never write about for the Times, he cannot write for the paper at all. Or if I once gave a paid speech at Target or P&G (and I have), I'm disqualified from writing about business for the paper, even if my articles have nothing to do with any of my speaking clients. (Would the paper also care that I've been paid to speak at Princeton or the University of North Texas?)

This is the Mike Albo standard, as explained in Clark Hoyt's earlier column: "The paper's rules apply even for work done for others."

This is crazy and, as I told Hoyt, borderline unethical. Like any good publication, the Times should know about, disclose, and possibly forbid, any relationship between the sources and subjects of Times articles and the writers of those articles. But in any normal system, that control would be exercised over the articles, not over the lives of the writers outside their work for the paper. Treating the article, not the freelancer, as the locus of oversight would also force the kinds of conversations between editors and writers that aren't currently taking place.

But until the NYT adopts such a reasonable policy, could we stop pretending it merely forbids taking money from "people you cover"?

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