Certain guidelines are standard in journalism ethics codes.
1. Plagiarism, the lifting of someone else's words without crediting them, is a cardinal journalistic sin, one that The Times own ethics' code suggests can result in dismissal.
2. Reporters should never take gifts from or be paid by those they cover. (The implication, if they do, is that the news and opinion can be bought. For readers, the appearance of conflict is self-evident whether or not the journalist has actually been influenced.)
3, It's a clear conflict of interest for reporters to cover an issue in which they are deeply enmeshed.
So what happened in the last couple of weeks? A prominent Times reporter and two star columnists violated all three. That's breathtaking at a newspaper that positions itself as the standard bearer of journalistic integrity, as the brand that cradles credibility instead of celebrity, the broadsheet that stands for T-R-A-D-I-T-I-O-N and standards in the face of a blogosphere it views as filled with poseurs and shoot-from-the-hip opinionators.
And how did The Times handle these three blatant infractions of journalistic ethics? Again, it equivocated.
Let's take them one at a time. The plagiarism reportedly led to a correction and the late addition of web attribution in a column Maureen Dowd wrote about Dick Cheney and torture. She told Times public editor Clark Hoyt that she lifted a paragraph nearly verbatim from the blog of Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo repute because -- get this -- she was in Hoyt's words "talking with a friend who suggested the wording without telling her where it came from."
How Dowd picked up Marshall's wording is unclear. The fact that she did is unequivocal. If The Times really gives a hoot about the dozens of pages of ethics codes it prints, Dowd at minimum should be required to give a credible explanation, should publicly apologize to Marshall and her readers, should be suspended from the column without pay for a significant period of time and should be directly questioned about whether this ever happened before.
Case No. 2 centers on a $75,000 speaker's fee that Times columnist Thomas Friedman accepted, according to Hoyt, from a "regional government agency" in Oakland, Calif. Now one might wonder how and why, in the midst of a recession that has nearly bankrupted the state of California, any government agency in that state has an extra 75K to hand out for a speech. Friedman told Hoyt that his agent had presented him with an opportunity to talk at a "climate protection summit," a subject about which Friedman has developed much passion in his columns over the last year or so.
Friedman, at least, returned the speaking fee -- considerably more than the average annual U.S. individual income -- without dispute. But then, he can afford to. Hoyt reports that Friedman gives "15 or more" paid lectures a year and that he charges $75,000 as his standard fee. If you quickly do the math, that means Thomas Friedman makes more than $1 million a year in speaker's fees.
One has to wonder: Does that influence the choice of topics he covers? Should journalists be making that kind of money to make public speeches? Hoyt reports that The Times has a policy that requires staff members earning more than $5,000 a year in such fees to file an itemized annual accounting of their appearances. (He does not explain why, but one might surmise it is to guard against influence and potential conflict of interest). But Hoyt further notes that "almost no one has been doing so." This policy, it turns out, is not enforced.
Case No. 3 is perhaps the most complex. It has to do with economics writer Edmund Andrews.It turns out that Andrews, who offers Times readers expert information and analysis about the pressing economic issues of our time, was himself so careless with his finances that he risks losing his home.
He wrote a book (after informing his editors, according to Hoyt) that tells the story of how he took out subprime mortgages that he had no hope of repaying. Hoyt reports that Andrews is still seven months behind in his mortgage payments. He also says Andrews best bet for getting out of economic quicksand is to make lots of money on that book. The Times helped a bit last week by running a excerpt in its Sunday Magazine. But that's not the big problem here. The problem is that Times editors have continued to allow Andrews to cover stories that deal with America's subprime mortgage mess. That is simply inexcusable. Why? Because clearly Edmund Andrews has an enormous vested interest in the outcome of any governmental action on subprime mortages. As a result, every word he writes about the subject has to be suspect to readers -- or would be if in fact they were told of his conflict.
Power, it is said, corrupts. It does so by breeding arrogance -- the kind that allows The New York Times to allow a man who can't pay his own mortgage to continue reporting on government action on the subprime mortgage crisis, the kind that allows one high-profile columnist to take a sizable speaking fee from a public agency and another to at the very least carelessly use someone else's words off an email from an unidentified friend.
It is this same arrogance that ultimately undermines the powerful, that makes them blind to how they are perceived by others. As the elite news media in this country wring their hands about declining readership and their eroding advertising base, perhaps it is time for them to look at themselves as one of the prime causes of the crisis in which they find themselves. Elite journalism has become the domain of upper-middle to upper-class reporters and editors. They are educated at America's elite institutions and they expend more ink on hedge funds, derivatives and health spas than on the erosion of health care, the exploitation of immigrant labor, and the struggles of the average working man and woman.
Perhaps when journalists rub elbows too often with the rich and powerful, they see no real problem adapting their values, their sense of entitlement or their ethics. And perhaps the American public has turned away from traditional media because they figure the people writing for those publications as well as those running them no longer cares about average people's problems, no longer do more than give lip service to "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted."
This is the overriding context of The Times ethics trifecta this month. If America's most powerful and influential paper can shrug off such shabby ethics with half-cocked explanations and a public editor's carefully parsed criticism, then our great newspapers -- and the role in democracy that they represent -- are in much deeper trouble than their sinking balance sheets suggest.