The New York Times ethics cops look for corruption in all the wrong places.

The New York Times ethics cops look for corruption in all the wrong places.

The New York Times ethics cops look for corruption in all the wrong places.

Media criticism.
Jan. 7 2010 7:09 PM

Looking for Corruption in All the Wrong Places

The failings of the New York Times ethics cops.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

For the shallowest view of what corrupts journalists, I refer you to New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt's most recent column, in which he explains why the paper has banished three of its freelancers.

One freelancer was sacked for sullying Times ethics guidelines by accepting a trip to Minnesota from the 3M company and then writing about its operations in her monthly column for the paper's business section. Another freelancer, who has contributed to the Times' "Critical Shopper" column, got the boot for taking an expenses-paid junket to Jamaica sponsored by JetBlue and other companies. And a third freelancer was cast into the darkness for, as Hoyt puts it, "representing himself as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer."

I can't criticize the Times for dumping writers who ignore its rules. But the paper's 54-page ethics guidelines—a Rube Goldberg-ian chastity belt that appears to have been hewn by a platoon of lawyers—and the Times' application of them neglects the most corrupting influences facing its writers and editors: the pressure to conform to the consensus view.

Every news organization clings to a consensus view about the world, whether that organization considers itself liberal, conservative, centrist, objective, or impartial. Although editors and reporters are usually encouraged to nibble on the skin of the consensus—mostly to appear fair and balanced—it's the rare news organization that allows journalists to sink their fangs into what their colleagues consider a settled issue. Which institutions and which sources to treat as credible, what constitutes a story, and how hard to pursue that story are all governed by a news outlet's consensus thinking. (Most of the hostility directed at the Fox News Channel isn't about content but the network's vehement rejection of the conventional wisdom.)

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Journalists generally rise within the profession by doing good work. But flattering the wisdom of the boss, dressing like him, laughing at his jokes, aping his views, and imitating his manners and news judgment will always accelerate the process. Building out from that affinity relationship to embrace the boss's most loyal underlings will probably advance a journalist's career. Those who rumble against the consensus sometimes prevail, but it's not a reliable career strategy. Show me an ambitious, successful person in journalism who doesn't go with the executive flow, and I'll show you an outlier.

Web journalism offers new corruptions: Reporters and editors at many sites know they're judged daily by the number of page views their articles attract. Writers and editors who sift through the numbers quickly learn which story subjects will improve their standing within the site.

The Times'ethics guidelines may be blind to the urge to conform, but they aren't completely deaf. In warning its employees and contributors to be wary of giving friends, neighbors, or newsmakers "extra access or a more sympathetic ear" than they would strangers, it acknowledges how difficult it is to buck personal ties when reporting the news. I can only guess that the Times doesn't tell its reporters not to give editors "extra access or a more sympathetic ear" because such advice, if taken seriously, would bring the operation to a halt.

If it's true that a journalist can be compromised by a junket, then nobody can dispute that a reporter can be deterred from seeking the truth by the promise of job security and career advancement. Conformity—not junkets—is the true enemy.

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None of this should be read as autobiography. My bosses at Slate have always encouraged me to write what I think, even when it pissed them off, inconvenienced them, offended their friends, or angered potential advertisers. My every act of conformity can be blamed on only one person: me. (Disclosure:I contribute to the New York Times Book Review now and then.) Send examples of journalistic conformity to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and listen to the sweet, brief music of my Twitter feed. (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.)

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