When an ethics cop carries tweezers in his holster instead of a .44 Magnum, it's a safe bet the crimes he'll pursue will be cosmetic. New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame conformed to this profile yesterday (Feb. 26) by using his column to give the paper's eyebrows a vigorous plucking in his exploration of the "thorny question" of whether its news staffers can accept companywide discounts for goods "without creating the appearance of partiality."
Calame produces no example of favored editorial treatment for any of the 88 companies thatoffer discounts to New York Times Co. employees on the company's internal Web site. Still, he worries that discounts on cars, home mortgages, flowers, beauty spa treatments, and more, when collected by news staffers, "are often perceived as 'freebies' that can erode credibility with readers." (Of the company's 11,965 employees, about 1,200 reporters, clerks, editors, editorialists, columnists, and photographers work on the Times editorial side.)
I'd fret about eroded credibility, too, if the discounts amounted to much of a bribe. But they don't. Take the car discounts offered to Times Co. employees—$925 off a Saturn, $10,660 off a Chevy Tahoe, and an offer to purchase a Hyundai for $100 over total invoice. Such straight discounts are meaningless unless a base price from which the discounts will be calculated is given. As for the Hyundai offer—$100 over invoice—it isn't necessarily the best deal you can negotiate for the carmaker's vehicles. As Automotive.com explains:
Even if the dealer sells you a car at invoice, there is still a profit. The car dealer gets a dealer holdback from the manufacturer. A dealer holdback is a set percentage of the MSRP of a new vehicle that the dealer collects from the manufacturer.
Examining the fine print of the Hyundai-Times Co. offer, I found that the company reserves the right to "remove select vehicles" (read, "most desirable cars") from the program. Also, the "$100 over invoice" offer doesn't apply to whatever price-gouging accessories—mud flaps, bumper strips, floor mats, roof racks, lug locks, appearance packages—the dealer may have installed in the vehicle you pick. So, good luck, suckers!
I haven't investigated every "bargain" offered on the Times Co. Intranet, but I suspect a knowledgeable consumer could get comparable—or better—deals without invoking the company discount. Calame writes with excitement about the fact that Times Co. employees can get a 15 percent discount at 1-800-Flowers.com and a 15 percent discount at the Georgette Klinger salon. But when any civilian who plugs the words "1-800-Flowers.com discount coupons" into Google can get 20 percent off from the florist, and anybody visiting GoodHousekeeping.com can get 15 percent off their Klinger visit, I fail to see any specialness to the "offer." I doubt that many Times journalists, who labor in a city where nobody pays retail, rely very much on the site.
My own esteemed employer, the Washington Post Co., offers similar discounts on its corporate Intranet. I count 10 on the site today, and more than half of them are discounts on Post Co. goods and services—subscriptions to Newsweek; 10 percent off classes at Kaplan; 20 percent off Washington Post photos; and 10 percent off Post coffee cups, Post sweatshirts, and other Post swag. (Thanks, Don!)
Among the outside offers on the Post Co. site is a "sweetheart" deal for a Dell E510 computer and 17-inch CRT monitor for $886. But by going directly to the Dell site and clicking the right buttons, I worked out a bid of $877 for the same system. (No thanks, Don!) If Dell hopes to juice news coverage by discounting to Post Co. employees, I suggest it adjust the graft quotient in their favor.
Calame, a former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor, should understand that the story here—if there is one—isn't about the appearance of conflict of interest but of the relative worthlessness of most corporate "discount" programs. I guess when you start measuring ethic dilemmas with a micrometer, 15 percent "off" a bouquet tends to look like a major scandal.
The first "Press Box" reader to send his postal address to firstname.lastname@example.org will receive a 100 percent discount on a Slatebaseball cap. Offer good only in the United States; employees of the Washington Post Co. are not eligible, nor are their family members. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
Stop sending e-mail—we already have a winner.