The only phrase that inflicts more trauma upon my press critic ears than "conflict of interest" is "potential conflict of interest."
Not everybody reacts the way I do. There's an entire subcaucus of ethicists who prowl the news pages and the airwaves searching to expose journalists who have competing professional or personal interests. While it might be the right thing for writer John Doe to forever recuse himself from writing about Acme Industries because he worked for the firm X years ago, or because his brother works for one of its co-ventures now, or because his son just won an Acme Industries scholarship, or because he owns a few shares in Acme Industries, I tend not to mind as long as Doe discloses his gnarliest entanglements. I care more about assessing what Doe actually writes than unraveling every snag, loop, and knot from his life in search of a gotcha.
Which brings us to New York Times columnist Frank Rich. The Times and HBO announced this week that HBO has hired Rich as a "creative consultant" but that he will continue as a Times columnist. According to the Reuters story, "Rich will contribute to the network's original programming development, and could become a producer on any projects he helps shepherd."
The Times reports that it will prohibit Rich "from writing in his column … about either HBO or its parent company, Time Warner," but not from discussing Time Warner properties Time magazine or CNN, nor its "primary competitor, Fox News Channel." As Rich and his boss, Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal, explained it to Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña, "for a political column, such material remains fair game."
In other words, Rich will continue to write the "Week in Review" opinion column about the "intersection of culture and news" that he's contributed to since April 2005. The only change will be no mentions of HBO and Time Warner the corporation. (Listen to Rich talk about the vitality of this intersection on the Times Web site.)
Is such censorship necessary? Advisable? And will Rich be able to pull it off?
First, the censorship question. Is the man who contains more opinions than the Gallup Poll so inherently corruptible that his editors must strike the letters HBO from his vocabulary? Do we really think that the former "Butcher of Broadway" would play the ringer for the channel or the corporation that owns it? I could be persuaded that Rich needed gagging if he wrote news stories, but he's an opinion columnist! Opinions are subjective! Their origins and justifications are messy! As long as a disclaimer accompanies any mention of HBO or Time Warner in Rich's copy and a similar disclaimer rests at the bottom of his pieces, why not let him sound off about them? If he hits his head and turns into a shill for his new corporate masters, a Times editor can kill those pieces or fire him.
Is the ban advisable? For the embargo to be meaningful, it would have to extend to any mention of HBO shows. In recent years, the channel has produced a lineup of undeniably great programs that have woven themselves into our culture, including The Sopranos, The Wire, Sex and the City, Big Love, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Deadwood, Da Ali G Show, Carnivale, OZ, Six Feet Under, and Lucky Louie (just kidding). And that's not even mentioning its documentaries. If Rich's column is really supposed to be about the "intersection of culture and news," denying him references to the HBO canon would be like forcing him to write with only his pinky fingers. He'd still get his columns out, but would they be any good?
The more you think about it, blotting HBO and Time Warner out of Rich's column would probably prove impossible. HBO isn't just a cable channel that broadcasts lots of great TV series and Hollywood movies before they're shipped via DVD, it's a producer of theatrical films, it's a sports channel, and in the past it has partnered with other film companies to distribute feature films. Does the Times really want to block Rich from writing about any Hollywood production that may have brushed against HBO while in development? Also, a recurring topic in Rich's columns over the past decade has been media conglomerates (he's sorta against them). If he's forbidden to write about Time Warner—one of the largest media conglomerates—will it be possible for him to revisit media conglomeration?
Serve me my Frank Rich uncut, or not at all.
Or would you have preferred the headline, "Frankie Goes to Hollywood"? Cast your ballot at firstname.lastname@example.org. While we're at it, should I recuse myself from criticizing the Washington Post or Newsweek? Both are owned by the same company that owns Slate. Again, that e-mail address is email@example.com. Web servers are standing by now to take your mail. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Rich in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.