Jay-Z bought Zadie Smith a Fish Sandwich: Was That a Violation of NYT’s Ethical Guidelines?

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 7 2012 3:37 PM

Did Zadie Smith’s Fish Sandwich Violate NYT Ethical Guidelines?

Jay-Z and Zadie Smith
Left: Rapper Jay-Z in 2012. Right: Novelist Zadie Smith in 2010.

Left: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Moet Rose. Right:Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New Yorker

In a new profile of Jay-Z in this week’s T Magazine, Zadie Smith casually mentions that after interviewing the rapper and mogul over lunch (chicken parmesan for him, a fish sandwich for her), he grabbed the check. “You will be unsurprised to hear the Jiggaman paid,” the author, who is best known for her novels, informs her readers. Was Zadie Smith’s acceptance of the fish sandwich in breach of the stringent ethical guidelines of the New York Times?

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

Possibly. Section A3 of the company’s Policy on Ethics in Journalism states the following:

Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom.
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And what should a good Times reporter do if offered such a gift?

Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation; perishable gifts may instead be given to charity, also with a note to the donor. In either case the objective of the note is, in all politeness, to discourage future gifts.

I contacted the Times to ask whether a fish sandwich constituted a gift.  Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the Times, did not seem bothered that Smith had accepted the free lunch. He wrote:

Should she have argued with him, or refused to eat? To suggest that this situation—which she lays out for readers as part of her profile—runs afoul of journalistic ethics strikes me as ridiculous.

Presumably there was a third option—simply explaining that, as the author of a profile, Smith felt more comfortable paying for the lunch. But Corbett said he has “no concerns whatsoever” about what transpired during the interview, and said that the paper’s “rules recognize that in some situations it may be unavoidable to accept a modest level of hospitality.”

And what exactly is considered “modest”? I was able to track down the location of the lunch, described in the article only as a “homey Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street.” The restaurant, Parm, confirmed for me that the two did in fact dine there for lunch. A fish sandwich is not on the menu at the restaurant, but it is often offered as a special (and, apparently, is an especial favorite of Jay-Z’s). The going price for the sandwich is $17, or $18.49 with tax. This leaves aside the question of whether Smith had any sides or appetizers with her sandwich, or one of the restaurant’s $12 signature cocktails. Regardless, the Times’ policy, as posted on its site, does not lay out a maximum dollar amount in instances where hospitality is unavoidable.

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