Ethics 101: Why Tom Friedman shouldn’t give money to a group he writes about

Thomas Friedman. Photo (cc) 2016 by the Brookings Institution.

It’s been at least a few months since there have been any ethical problems involving The New York Times’ opinion section. Now, though, the streak has been broken. Paul Fahri of The Washington Post reports that Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written repeatedly about Conservation International, an organization to which he and his family have donated millions of dollars.

“Those contributions,” writes Fahri, “raise a somewhat novel ethical question: Should a journalist — particularly one as distinguished and influential as Friedman — disclose his direct financial support of those he’s writing about?”

Actually, this isn’t a close call. No. Journalists, including opinion journalists like Friedman, should not belong to or give money to organizations that they report on and write about. And if they find themselves in a position where they just can’t avoid it, they have to disclose the conflict. This is not so they can be “objective” — if it was, then it wouldn’t matter what opinion journalists do. It’s so they can maintain their independence.

As a summary of “The Elements of Journalism,” by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, puts it:

Journalistic independence … 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.

I suppose Friedman deserves at least a little bit of credit for giving money rather than taking it. Earlier this year, you may recall, Times columnist David Brooks got in trouble when it was revealed that he had a paid position at the Aspen Institute and had written favorably about funders, including Facebook.

Brooks kept his job after the Times said that he had disclosed the arrangement to his superiors in 2018, although his current editors didn’t know about it.

Please support this free source of news and commentary by becoming a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.