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.

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Fred Hiatt’s death ends a remarkable period of stability at The Washington Post

Fred Hiatt. Photo (cc) 2014 by CSIS.

The death of Fred Hiatt ends a period of remarkable stability at the top of The Washington Post’s masthead. Hiatt, the editorial-page editor, had served in that position since 1999. Marty Baron, who was hired as executive editor in 2012, retired earlier this year. Hiatt and Baron predated Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of the Post in 2013, and their continuation in those roles was a signal that Amazon’s founder was determined not to interfere with either the newsroom or the opinion operation.

Baron was replaced by Sally Buzbee, previously the top editor at The Associated Press. It will be interesting to see who replaces Hiatt — though I suspect it could be a while given that his sudden death at 66 was unanticipated. When Buzbee was interviewed recently by Kara Swisher on her New York Times podcast, she gave the impression that publisher Fred Ryan was more involved in her hiring than Bezos was. We’ll see if Bezos follows the same pattern in hiring a new opinion editor. Not that he has to — the ethical standard good news organizations follow is that the owner should stay out of the newsroom but is free to meddle with the editorial pages.

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I didn’t realize that Hiatt had Boston-area roots until I read the tributes this morning. He grew up in Brookline and graduated from Harvard, where his father was dean of the School of Public Health.

In my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote this about Hiatt’s editorial pages:

Hiatt’s retention was noteworthy, as new owners often want to exert their influence on the opinion pages. But even though Bezos’ politics were thought to be generally libertarian, the Post’s editorial stance — which could be described as moderately liberal with a taste for foreign intervention — did not change under Bezos’ ownership.

Looking back over the course of Hiatt’s career, I’d say that observation has held up. The Post is, indeed, moderately liberal. But his unsigned editorials called for war following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and — more controversially — against Iraq, which then-President George W. Bush wrongly claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Post, of course, was hardly the only newspaper to endorse what proved to be a horrendous foreign-policy blunder. But it’s the job of a great newspaper to take unpopular stands when warranted. In fact, the Times came out against going to war in Iraq, if rather grudgingly.

The Post’s opinion section diverged from the Times’ during the Donald Trump era as well. Though Hiatt was staunchly anti-Trump and published many anti-Trump columnists — including conservatives like Max Boot, Michael Gerson and George Will — he also employed pro-Trump pundits like Marc Thiessen (“Three cheers for ‘Let’s Go Brandon'”) and Gary Abernathy (“A Trump candidacy in 2024 would threaten his own legacy”).

I’m not sure what Hiatt thought such drivel added to his section. Maybe he just wanted his readers to see what the pro-Trump argument was without having to seek it out on Fox News. In any case, the Times took a different approach, restricting its in-house conservatives to Never Trumpers like Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens. (I’d mention David Brooks, too, except that he really isn’t much a conservative these days.)

Hiatt was a strong supporter of human rights around the world and spoke out forthrightly against the Saudi regime following the murder of one of his columnists, Jamal Khashoggi. By all accounts, he was also a very nice guy, which counts for a lot. A Post editorial put it this way: “Mr. Hiatt made it possible for The Post’s opinion writers and the content they produce to encompass a wide range of views on virtually every subject of public debate, without the rancor, personal enmity and bad faith that have become so prevalent elsewhere in Washington and the nation. Our respect for and loyalty to Mr. Hiatt, and his for us, held this staff together.”

Hiatt served long enough in his position to watch the Post shrink under Graham family ownership from a viable competitor with the Times to a regional paper forced to cut its staff year after year; and then to preside over its rebirth and growth under Bezos. He was an honorable servant of the Washington establishment, which I mean in both a positive and a negative sense. Given the fractures that are now tearing the country apart, we may not see the likes of him again.

Normalizing Marjorie Taylor Greene, coddling Scott Walker: Your liberal media at work

Last night, on the “PBS NewsHour,” anchor Amna Nawaz noted in a conversation with political analysts Jonathan Capehart and David Brooks that a number of Republicans have criticized President Biden over the way he’s handled the evacuation from Kabul. Fair enough. But let’s listen in:

You have a number of Republicans coming out recently speaking very critically about the president’s leadership, or lack thereof, as they say, but it really does run the spectrum of Republicans. You have everyone from Senator Ben Sasse, to Senator Ted Cruz, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, and, of course, former President Trump.

Wait, what was that? Marjorie Taylor Greene is, of course, the QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theorist from Georgia who continues to defend the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. Are we normalizing her now? Why, yes, of course we are. The “NewsHour” even threw up a helpful graphic to underscore the point. Good Lord. I wish Capehart or Brooks had said something, but they both let it slide.

Then, in today’s New York Times, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was defeated for re-election in 2018, claims a sizable chunk of op-ed space in order to bash teachers unions, whom he targeted repeatedly during his benighted eight years as his state’s chief executive, and to tell us how awesome he was during his time in office. He writes:

Overall, our reforms did more than just help schools and local governments. During my time in office, unemployment in Wisconsin dropped below the previous record low of 3 percent as more people were working than ever before. Median household income was up, as were wages. We balanced the budget every year with a surplus, fully funded our retirement system and had a rainy-day fund 190 times as large as when we started.

You know, we have low unemployment, high income and budget surpluses in Massachusetts, too, and we somehow manage to do it with strong teachers unions. But that’s not my point. My point is: Why? Why Walker? Why now? What is the context? I can’t think of anything taking place in the news right now that would lead an editor either to track down Scott Walker and ask him to write an op-ed or to run something he sent in over the transom.

Then again, the perceived need by liberal-oriented news organizations to bend over backwards to show that they’re fair — even to people who don’t deserve it, like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Scott Walker — is primordial.

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A leading media ethicist picks up the pieces of the David Brooks story

Edward Wasserman. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Knight Foundation.

The controversy over New York Times columnist and “PBS NewsHour” commentator David Brooks’ conflicts of interest has all but faded away. But before everyone just, you know, moves on, I’d like to share with you a new blog post by Edward Wasserman, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and one of the country’s leading media ethicists. If you’ve forgotten the backstory, Wasserman has recapitulated it for you.

Wasserman begins with the valuable observation that conflicts tend to arise at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum — low-paid journalists caught in the realities of a shrinking news business have to take on outside work, meaning that “every story we read may be an audition for future work (or a thank-you for past employment), and we’re left to wonder how single-minded the writer’s commitment to us can be.” Or, for that matter, they might have an incentive to write nice things about McDonald’s. That, at least is understandable.

On the Brooksian end of the spectrum, though, the corruption is much more clear. Wasserman writes:

Star journalists cash in on notoriety from their day jobs, and the lead commentator for a prestige publication who moonlights on cable TV can make tens of thousands to speak at a trade association confab or corporate retreat. That’s a powerful incentive to pick subjects and grind axes that sharpen the journalist’s brand — which again raises the question, when we read their work, of who else they’re working for.

Another important point Wasserman makes is that the full disclosure Brooks failed to provide until he was caught by BuzzFeed News is no substitute for avoiding the conflict in the first place. Now, I’m among a younger (not that young) generation of media critics influenced by New York University Jay Rosen, which means that I tend to favor full disclosure without worrying quite as much about conflicts as earlier generations did.

But it’s hard to disagree with Wasserman when he writes: “Disclosure can never cleanse work of its bias; it can only alert readers to the possibility that bias exists and dare them to find it.” I would differ with Wasserman on his use of the word “bias.” Of course Brooks is biased. He’s an opinion journalist. But Brooks does owe us his independence, and he compromised that through his entanglements with Facebook and the Bezos family, among others.

I’m not sure whether Brooks could have survived this if he hadn’t apparently disclosed his conflicts to his previous editors (though not to readers or viewers). In any case, he’s still standing, and though he can drive me crazy sometimes, I agree with Wasserman that he is “a lucid and humane writer.” I’d miss him if he were gone. But I don’t know that I’ll ever trust him again — and there were already reasons to approach Brooks’ work with tweezers and a pair of rubber gloves.

Brooks has undermined trust in the Times, the “NewsHour” and himself. I guess the calculation is that he still has value; otherwise, he’d be gone. But he’s definitely moved himself to the discount rack, perhaps permanently.

Previous coverage.

The David Brooks matter comes to an end (probably)

I just want to put a “-30-” on this. The New York Times reported earlier today that disclosures will be added to David Brooks’ past columns in which he had a conflict of interest (background here). He’s resigned from his paid position at the Aspen Institute. Most important, I think, is this:

Mr. Brooks had received approval to take the paid position at Aspen in 2018, according to Eileen Murphy, a Times spokeswoman, but the current editors of the opinion section did not know about the arrangement.

Presumably this means that Brooks’ outside work was approved by former editorial-page editor James Bennet, who apparently saw nothing wrong with Brooks’ writing about Facebook and other Aspen funders without disclosing that to readers. Bennet is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Brooks should have been more forthcoming than he was in his modified limited hangout on the “PBS NewsHour” Friday night. But barring any further disclosures, this story feels like it’s over.

And kudos to Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News for their dogged reporting.

David Brooks addresses the Weave controversy

Move ahead to 8:48

New York Times columnist David Brooks addressed the Weave matter Friday evening durng his regular appearance on the “PBS NewsHour” — which places Judy Woodruff and company several steps ahead of the Times when it comes to transparency.

Brooks was nervous through the segment, which began with his usual back-and-forth with Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. At the end, in the clip that I’ve bookmarked above (start at 8:48 if it doesn’t happen automatically), Woodruff gave Brooks a chance to explain himself. I thought he seemed sincerely interested in trying to set things right, but that he wasn’t entirely forthcoming.

He began by saying, “First, we did totally disclose it,” referring to his salary at the Aspen Institute, where he runs Weave, a civic-engagement initiative. Later, he seemed to say that what he meant was he’d disclosed it to his superiors at the Times. Certainly his readers and viewers didn’t know it.

He also said he had “not meaningfully written” about any of Weave’s funders, including Facebook, even though BuzzFeed News — which broke the story — has presented evidence to the contrary. Nor did he mention a post he wrote for Facebook’s blog in which he sang the praises of Facebook Groups, also revealed by BuzzFeed.

“It has not affected my journalism,” he insisted. Nevertheless, he conceded that his critics have a point and said he’ll be making changes over the next week.

How will this end? I suspect the Times will announce a policy pertaining to all of their in-house opinion journalists, and that will be the end of it — especially if Brooks can prove that management knew about his Weave salary.

Earlier:

Update: BuzzFeed News reporter Craig Silverman rebuts Brooks point by point in this Twitter thread:

Update II: Brooks has resigned from his position at the Aspen Institute as more conflicts of interest surface. BuzzFeed News reports.

Did David Brooks’ former superiors know about his conflicts of interest?

The New York Times posted David Brooks’ Friday column last night without any suggestion that something was amiss. Meanwhile, Paul Farhi’s report in The Washington Post raises the possibility that Brooks had let his superiors know he was drawing a salary from Weave, the civic-engagement project he’s affiliated with at the Aspen Institute, but that the new regime, led by opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury, may have been unaware:

People at the Times said Brooks informed at least some of his previous bosses about the details of the Weave project. But last summer saw the departure of the Times’s top editorial-page editors, and Brooks’s current editors were unaware of the arrangement. Officially, the Times has declined to say whether it knew about Brooks’s outside employment.

Needless to say, it would be interesting to go back and see if he wrote any columns about Facebook and other organizations with which he had a financial relationship while James Bennet was the editorial-page editor. Bennet might have known, but those ties weren’t disclosed to readers. Which is, after all, what really matters.

Earlier:

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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David Brooks’ semi-mea culpa on the war in Iraq

It’s easy to make fun of David Brooks’ semi-mea culpa on the war in Iraq. But let’s not forget that liberals like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton voted for the war, and if you think they did it solely for political posturing, then you’re more cynical than I am.

Personally, I was against the invasion, but I thought it was a close call. And if you go back to Bill Clinton’s presidency, you may recall that horror stories about sick and starving Iraqi children — a consequence of U.S. sanctions — led some liberals to call for a humanitarian intervention.

Finally, in 1998 Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which committed the United States to regime change.

Brooks was always the most thoughtful among the war’s supporters. What he has to say today is worth reading.

David Brooks, 140 characters at a time

David Brooks speaking at the Kennedy School. Photo by Lauren Schaad. Original in the Storify referenced below.

New York Times columnist David Brooks ripped into the Republican Party for failing to come to grips with a country whose diversity is on the rise. The Republicans, he said Thursday evening at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, were “a lagging indicator” in the demographic changes that have taken place over the past several decades, and that helped shape the election results last week.

Brooks delivered the Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics, an annual program presented by the Kennedy Schools’ Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. His talk was precededed by the presentation of the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism to Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Cynthia Tucker.

A lot of people were live-tweeting the event, and the Shorenstein Center put together a Storify that you can read by clicking here. My own tweets follow.