The New York Times has a David Brooks problem

David Brooks. Photo (cc) 2011 by the Miller Center.

The New York Times’ David Brooks problem has ratcheted up from “uh, oh” to “holy cow.”

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday that Brooks, a prominent Times columnist, is getting paid for his work at Weave, a civic-engagement project that’s part of the Aspen Institute. Among Weave’s funders is Facebook.

A week earlier, BuzzFeed reported that Brooks had written a post on Facebook’s blog singing the praises of Facebook Groups without letting his editors at the Times know about it. That was bad enough. But now that there’s money involved, the Times is going to have to take action.

It’s unclear whether the Times knows he’s been getting a second salary. If they do, then perhaps Brooks can avoid being disciplined. But whether they know or not, what about the rest of us? Every time Brooks writes about an organization in which he has a financial stake, that needs to be appended to the bottom of his column. Needless to say, the problem with that is it would look ridiculous. I’m sure the Times doesn’t want to run a piece by one of its own staff columnists that reveals he’s in the tank to someone else.

As someone who has worked in opinion journalism for many years, and who teaches it, I feel like I have a stake in calling out Brooks’ misbehavior. I stress to my students repeatedly that we have the same ethical obligations as straight-news reporters. We don’t make political contributions. We don’t put signs on our lawns. And we maintain our independence.

One of the four tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “act independently.” The code explains further: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Brooks’ conflict seems avoidable enough, but at the very least he should have disclosed it.

A summary of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The Elements of Journalism” has this to say about independence and opinion journalism:

Journalistic independence, write Kovach and Rosenstiel, is not neutrality. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform — not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, journalists must avoid straying into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.

I assume the Times is going to take this seriously. It may be bad for Brooks that the Times’ opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, is just a few weeks into her job and may want to send a message to the rest of her staff.

But I’m troubled by a statement BuzzFeed got from Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. Silverman and Mac write: “Murphy said other Times columnists have roles outside the paper. When asked for an example, she cited Paul Krugman, who was a professor of economics at Princeton and is currently a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.”

Seriously? Krugman is not a columnist who scored an academic gig. He’s a professor who was so highly regarded that the Times hired him as a columnist. The Times is his second job (or was; he seems to be semi-retired now), just as the Aspen Institute is Brooks’ second. And everyone knows about Krugman’s academic background. It was hardly a secret when he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

I hope this can be resolved. Brooks is reviled in many circles, but I value his work. He often shows himself to be out of touch, and he can drive me crazy sometimes. But at his best he’s very good, and I’d hate to see him go, or set up a Substack.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart kick the week’s news around on the “PBS NewsHour” tomorrow evening. Brooks should address it.

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7 thoughts on “The New York Times has a David Brooks problem

  1. Marcus J Breen

    The problem with Brooks is that he is greedy. He does speaking tours and so on to colleges, all of which are remunerated… plenty of cause for pause. What should be the ethical line?

    Then this guy: Yi-Zheng Lian His NYT bio: “Mr. Lian, a former chief editor of The Hong Kong Economic Journal, is a longtime commentator on Hong Kong affairs. writing op-eds.” Here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/01/opinion/hong-kong-security-law.html
    On closer examination this: “…Chief Editor and lead writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal before serving as a Senior Policy Adviser for the Chief Executive at the Central Policy Unit of the first administration of the Hong Kong SAR government, from 1998 to 2004. He was dismissed from his advisory post after a profiled participation in a pro-democracy sit-in in Central, Hong Kong.”

  2. nahantjim

    It has been wonderful to see David Brooks evolve over the last twenty-five years or so. Starting as a literate but unremarkable conservative columnist he evolved into a remarkably humane, thoughtful, interesting person. I was disappointed in his last book and I certainly don’t agree with everything he writes, but I don’t want to see his voice silenced. Here he is on writing about Buckley:

    And it will be interesting to hear what you have to say, Dan. We always watch you on Beat the Press on Friday nights after we listen to David Brooks on the Newshour.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @nahantjim: I guess you’ll have to content yourself with this blog post, because I didn’t get the BTP invitation this week.

      1. nahantjim

        Booo! Even though I find Ms. Rooney irritating I watch the show every week. I really think Callie should overcome her reticence and perk up a bit. What is she trying to hide?

        Also, I’d love to hear your take on the MIT conference back in 2016, “Beyond Comments: Community, Contributions & Onsite Behavior.” Did it ever produce anything?

  3. My recollection is that he got reprimanded some years ago for running an essay contest, as a Times columnist, through a website through which his latest book at the time could be purchased. And years before that, when he spoke before a panel at Harvard in connection with a different book, there was an interesting coincidence of a blog post (or posts) by him addressed to someone at Harvard, and an op-ed by one of the panelists published in the Times, that gave the appearance that something was going on — I remember sending email to his editor at the time because it looked pretty unseemly to me. All of which is to say I am not surprised, but I wish I understood better what’s going on — both with him and with the context in which he is operating.

  4. Pingback: Did David Brooks’ former superiors know about his conflicts of interest? – Media Nation

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