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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The 11th element of journalism

UnknownIn Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s classic work “The Elements of Journalism,” they list nine (later revised to 10) qualities that define good journalism. These include principles such as an obligation to the truth (rather than mere he-said/she-said accuracy), verification of facts and independence.

This week I asked students in my Journalism Ethics and Issues class to come up with an 11th element. I am delighted with the results, which you can read by clicking here.