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A Flexible Standard On News Ethics

If you were a news editor, would you run a story that centered on activists who posed as customers at a place of business in order to investigate claims that it was violating ethical and legal standards in its operation?

How about a story by a reporter who crashed a private gathering to learn something that common sense would have suggested most people already knew?

If you are the public editor of The New York Times, you evidently would turn up your nose at journalists who spread the story in the first case, and applaud the story produced by the journalist (who happened to be your own paper’s reporter) in the second.

Back in 2009, Clark Hoyt, who was then the Times’ public editor, examined the level at which the Times covered - or failed to cover - the then-recent news connected to the community organizing group Acorn. A video sting caught certain Acorn workers counseling undercover activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute as to the best methods for remaining undiscovered and cheating on their taxes. The videos, which were distributed online and by Fox News, led to a chain reaction that included the Senate voting to cut all federal funding to Acorn.

Amid the debate over whether the activists were doing the work of lax journalists, Hoyt wrote, “[…] most news organizations consider such tactics unethical - The Times specifically prohibits reporters from misrepresenting themselves or making secret recordings.” He defended the Times’ decision to treat the story solely as a political one, though he did acknowledge that the paper’s news staff could have reacted more swiftly.

In contrast, Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ current public editor, recently defended reporter Eric Lipton in the wake of his decision to attend a private political event to which the press was not invited. Lipton gave only his first name when a staff member at the event asked who he was; after a few minutes, when he had already heard (and apparently secretly recorded) some of the remarks, he was asked for further identification. He then gave his full name and disclosed his affiliation with The Times, at which point he was asked to leave. Lipton later used some remarks from the event in an article about Sen. Max Baucus’ former aides who have become lobbyists.

Sullivan wrote, “What Mr. Lipton did should not become an everyday practice. But - seen in this wider context - it’s not only pretty small stuff, but also reflects some journalistic initiative that serves Times readers well.”

Is this splitting hairs? Did the reporter not misrepresent himself by only giving his first name when asked? Was he not deliberately representing himself as having been invited when he was not? Was there a compelling public interest that would justify the reporter’s actions?

This raises the question of what, in fact, Lipton learned through his deception. In the pertinent section of his article, he quoted Paul Wilkins, Baucus’ chief of staff, in characterizing the money fundraised for Baucus’ (now moot) re-election campaign as allowing them to “scare off opponents.” Wilkins went on to thank the lobbyists in attendance, some who whom were Baucus’ former aides, for their support.

In short, Lipton learned that, behind closed doors, an incumbent politician wanted to raise a lot of money for re-election because it would deter potential challengers, and that his chief of staff was grateful to his campaign donors. Anyone who has spent any time at all in a capital city knows as much. Hardly compelling.

Moreover, in the case of the Acorn sting (or scam, depending on your perspective), the posers entered a place of business, where most of us would expect at least some contact with the outside world. The meeting Lipton attended was held at a townhouse, and was expressly closed to the public and the press. If I throw a party and leave the front door unlocked for my guests, are strangers entitled to enter and stay until someone expressly asks them to leave? By what right?

It is perfectly fair for the public that consumes The New York Times’ journalism to wonder how the paper’s editorial decisions are reached. Is The Times ready to put cameras in the room where it holds its daily news meeting so it can stream the discussion live online? Or to turn its newsroom into the set of a reality TV series? Doubtless politicians speak differently when they have some expectation of privacy. So do journalists - and everyone else, for that matter.

Can journalistic ends justify the means? Sometimes. But the Baucus fundraiser does not rise to the level of publishing the Pentagon Papers. And although different public editors will naturally have different interpretations of similar situations, Sullivan’s column smacks of rationalizing, rather than impartial review.

If this is the best The Times’ public editor can manage, maybe a better place to have examined Lipton’s conduct would have been the newspaper’s Ethicist column.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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