Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ethics, schmethics

The New York Times is under fire again. Synopsis: Trying to go cheap on a technology and business column, the paper hired a Harvard professor who took a free trip from the 3M company and then wrote about it for her column. This amuses Virginia Postrel, who turned down that same NYT columnist gig:
I am, in fact, ethically ineligible to write about innovation for the NYT.
I occasionally do paid speaking for companies that might conceivably be sources for a column on innovation. (Those speaking engagements generally pay quite a bit better than writing for the Times.) As an old journalism pro, I naturally know enough not to take a speaking gig and then turn it into an article, at least not without getting my editor's OK and disclosing any potential conflict to readers. But that's no longer enough for the Times. Its ethics guidelines now prohibit freelancers from taking honoraria or even travel expenses from anyone who might, in some theoretical future state of the world, be a source.
Read the whole thing. This goes back to my basic beef with the Grand Poobahs of Journalism Ethics. Their standards -- including their hostility to press junkets, free food and other "conflicts of interest" -- always favored the big media outlets, which can afford to pay expenses for travel, meals, etc., that smaller operations can't afford.

Back in the day when big newspapers and magazines were rolling in ad revenue, a staffer for Time or the Washington Post could go where the action was, put the whole thing on his AmEx card and get reimbursed for all expenses. You couldn't do that if you were working for a smaller paper.

The ability to pay correspondents to go trotting off to Rio and Riyadh was a basic element of the prestige of major news organizations, and the Grand Poobahs of Journalism Ethics codified the rules to protect the status quo. A clever racket, and if you let the big boys set the rules, don't be surprised that the rules favor the big boys so decisively that you never get a scoop.

Well, now the big boys' budgets are getting tight, see? And they're discovering that Journalism Ethics was actually a luxury item that they can no longer afford.

Screw 'em. I forfeited all claim to "Journalism Ethics" more than two decades ago, when I was a small-town sportswriter scarfing up all the free chili dogs I could get from the ladies at the Gordon Central High School Band Boosters concession stand. And I recall some good advice from my Old School editors: "Just get the facts right and you're OK."

Or, as I once remarked to Bob Barr, "Ethics, schmethics." We were walking to a seafood restaurant in Orlando called Fish On Fire, and if you think I was going to pay for supper, you're nuts. If I'd been worried about tithing the mint and cumin of "ethics," I wouldn't even have been on that trip. A reporter's job is to get the facts. How I get the facts is my own business, and if the facts are in Orlando, let's not clutter up the story with a lot of "full disclosure" crap about my travel arrangements, OK?

Open mockery of "Journalism Ethics" is not going to win you any friends at the New York Times, but what kind of self-respecting gonzo journalist cares about making friends at the New York Times?

The facts are the facts, and the fact is that the Grand Poobahs of Journalism Ethics have been running a racket for years. Now they're running out of money and having to rely on Harvard professors to do the job, which is a sure sign of desperation.

Meanwhile, it's about time for me to book my flight to Pasadena for the BCS Championship Game -- Roll Tide! -- so please hit the tip jar. While Mrs. Other McCain doesn't worry too much about Journalism Ethics, she is kind of worried about certain neutral objective facts we can't avoid, including the heating bill.

(Via Memeorandum and Professor Glenn Reynolds, who went to law school at Yale, not Harvard, and whose bias against the University of Alabama does not require "full disclosure.")

UPDATE: Just booked my flight for Pasadena, if you're interested.