Speaking of The New Yorker.

Media criticism.
Dec. 3 2004 1:28 AM

Money Talks

How closely should The New Yorker police its writers' speaking engagements?

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If the ethics police recruited me, I doubt that I'd ever rise higher on the force than flatfoot. It's not that investigating journalistic conflicts of interest isn't a worthy enterprise; it's just that sorting out and adjudicating the particulars is too much of a tweezers-and-micrometer chore for my liking: I do my best work with a ball-peen hammer and a yardstick. Dispatch me after the reporter who allegedly plagiarized, but please don't make me rule on whether a Washington Post reporter whose spouse works for the Department of Agriculture can cover politics for the paper, too.

But every now and again, I enter the ethics zone to see what, if anything, I'm missing. This week, an anonymous e-mailer asked if I knew that two New Yorker staff writers, Malcolm Gladwell and James Surowiecki, collect speaking fees from corporations and trade associations while writing on business topics for the magazine. Although the Anonymouse acknowledged that he could name no specific New Yorker article, paragraph, or sentence tainted by a speaking fee, he demanded that I bring this subject to the public's attention. (The Leigh Agency represents both Gladwell and Surowiecki on the speaking circuit. See this page for a 45-minute video clip of Gladwell on the stump.)

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I've repeatedly criticized other reporters for relying on anonymous sources, so I recognize the irony of me writing a piece based on an anonymous allegation. One important difference here, not necessarily in my favor, is that even I don't know who's throwing the mud balls at Gladwell and Surowiecki, whereas most reporters who publish anonymous comments know the identity of their anonymice. Please forgive me.

But anonymity didn't give me enough reason to ignore the tip. Also, I'll admit that Anonymouse goaded me into writing by claiming 1) that nobody would dare touch the subject because they all aspire to work for The New Yorker and 2) that Slate would ignore it because Gladwell is Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg's close friend and Surowiecki, a former Slate columnist, dates a Slate staffer.

For the record, I have no ambitions to write for The New Yorker, but I wouldn't mind having Editor David Remnick work for me. As for shielding Gladwell and Surowiecki, if there's a "protect list" at Slate,nobody has given me a copy. Slate beat upThe New Yorker for a book excerpt it published in 2000, I criticized the magazine last year, and in 2002, Slate's Kausfiles whacked Gladwell for having gotten the subject of estrogen and women wrong in the magazine. Gladwell, much the mensch, conceded the point a couple of days later in a note.

Leaving the back story behind, let's shift to the foreground. I spoke to Remnick and Surowiecki about the charges but failed to reach Gladwell, who is out of the country. Here's what they said.

Remnick defended his writers' speaking engagements in a telephone conversation and elaborated on those thoughts in an e-mail. Since publishing his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell "has spoken to many groups and always on the same subject: The Tipping Point," Remnick writes. "It is not a partisan speech and, as you know from his work, he is extremely eclectic in his interests and independent in his thinking. He is just about the least political or ideological writer on the staff—and wonderfully unpredictable."

Remnick believes, as I do, that a publication should be judged first by the journalism it publishes. Is the work "fair, is it as complete and intellectually honest as it can be?" he writes. It's telling that Anonymouse presents no substantive case against Gladwell or Surowiecki's work in his e-mail. He does suggest that I check Gladwell's recent article about drug prices for evidence that he's a Big Pharma shill. Remnick responds to that change: "If the drug companies followed the direction of the piece, their profits would drop by more than half." I agree. When the piece appeared, I e-mailed Gladwell my congratulations on a job well done.

Like Slate, The New Yorker maintains no master ethics manual, such as this 57-page bible from the New York Times. Perhaps the Times requires such a Talmudic document because it's the only practical way to lead a nation-state that employs a thousand journalists. If the editors of the Times had to resolve every ethical question raised every day by every employee, I doubt that they'd get the newspaper out. Meanwhile, the managers of smaller publications—little villages, if you will—can cover similar issues in a quick, personal fashion. And, as any lawyer will tell you, a thicker legal code does not automatically predict a more law-abiding society.

As long as we're passing judgment on the ethics of The New Yorker and its writers, it's worth noting that the magazine, unlike daily newspapers or Slate, polishes and inspects its articles with an obsessive's precision. Fact-checkers dissect the magazine's pieces, atom by atom. The exacting editors work the copy until it's raw and bleeding. I'm not saying The New Yorker is a perfect editorial machine, but good luck to the crooked writer trying to sneak a paid advertisement past the staff!

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