The NYTPicker has learned that David Pogue, the NYT's hugely popular personal-technology columnist, was paid an undisclosed amount to speak to an industry trade group in California last Friday -- a arrangement that violated the same NYT rules that recently got op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman into trouble.
On Friday morning, Pogue was the keynote speaker at the Consumer Electronics Association's "CEO Summit" near Los Angeles -- a gathering of hundreds of top executives at the nation's leading technology companies. A spokesman for the CEA, Jason Oxman, confirmed to the NYTPicker that Pogue was paid for his speech, and reimbursed for his travel expenses from New York to California.
In doing so, Pogue violated the NYT ethics guidelines on public speaking that allow NYT staffers to accept fees "only from educational or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus."
The Consumer Electronics Association, while technically a nonprofit organization, is an industry trade group whose stated mission is to "grow the consumer electronics industry," which Pogue covers. It's fully funded by its corporate members, and has its own lobbying division. In its 2007 tax return, the CEA reported spending $3.3 million on government lobbying and political expenditures to promote the consumer electronics industry.
In an email statement to The NYTPicker late Friday afternoon, Catherine Mathis, the NYT's senior vice president of corporate communications, acknowledged Pogue's error in judgement and implied that he had been reprimanded for his CEA appearance:
David Pogue is not a Times staff member, but that, as the Ethical Journalism policy says, freelancers are held to the extent possible to the same standards as staffers when they are on Times assignments. This speech was not a Times assignment, but Mr. Pogue has been reminded of the policy provisions barring acceptance of speaking fees or travel expenses from all but educational or other non-profit organizations that do not have lobbying or political activity as a major focus.
While it's true that Pogue isn't a NYT staff member, the NYT's ethical journalism policy in fact holds freelancers to the same standards as NYT staffers, whether on a "Times assignment" or not, as this clause makes clear:
Our audience applies exacting standards to all of our journalism. It does not normally distinguish between the work of staff members and that of outside freelancers. Thus as far as possible, freelance contributors to the Times Company's journalism, while not its employees, should accept the same ethical standards as staff members as a condition of their assignments for us. If they violate these standards, they should be denied further assignments.
Given that, would Pogue be expected to return the speaker's fee paid to him by the CEA? After it was recently disclosed that Thomas Friedman took a $75,000 fee for speaking to a California government lobbying group, the op-ed columnist promptly gave back the money. Friedman gave back the money. "It was my fault," Friedman said. "No excuses."
The NYTPicker asked Mathis if the NYT planned to ask Pogue to return the CEA speaking fee and travel reimbursement.
"We have no authority to do so." Mathis replied via email. "While we could deny him future assignments, we have no plans to do so."
Reached last night, Pogue defended his appearance at the CEA to The NYTPicker, though he acknowledged in an email that as a result of his Friday faux-pas, he has agreed to get NYT approval before accepting future speaking gigs.
Here is Pogue's statement, in full:
Well, the Times ethics book says you can't accept speaking fees unless it's for "educational or other nonprofit groups for which lobbying
and political activity are not a major focus."
The group for whom I spoke, the CEA, is indeed a nonprofit, educational organization. But is lobbying a "major focus?"
Less than 5 percent of its staff and resources has to do with lobbying (they have 3 lobbyists on staff among 150 employees). Meanwhile, 90 percent of the CEA's staff and budget are dedicated to research, education and, of course, the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show.
Nonetheless, I've agreed to run future speaking requests by my editors before accepting them.
Pogue didn't answer two questions asked by the NYTPicker: whether he planned to return the money he was paid to travel to and speak to the CEA -- as Friedman did -- and whether he he perceived an ethical problem in accepting money from an industry trade group that promotes the products he reviews.
It's worth noting that the Consumer Electronics Show to which Pogue refers is an annual event designed to promote new products and models. It isn't open to the public. Nor are most of the CEA's other events and activities. The "research" and "education" to which he refers exist to further the ends of the consumer electronics industry that Pogue covers as a journalist.
The thinly-veiled frustration in Mathis's comment about Pogue sheds light a fundamental problem posed by the columnist's poor judgement. The NYT can't afford to enforce its strict code of ethical conduct on Pogue, simply because of his enormous value to the NYT brand.
While not a member of the NYT staff, Pogue ranks among its most popular and valuable contributors; his reviews of new products routinely land on the NYT's top-ten most-emailed list, and his videos have grown immensely popular with readers. Last week, Pogue's rave review of the new iPhone landed him on the list yet again.
As the NYT's future becomes increasingly tied to the success of its website, Pogue's value to the paper continues to grow. Pogue is a personable, witty 46-year-old Yale graduate whose videos and commentary reflect the NYT's own changing persona, from a stodgy print product to an engaging, personality-driven multimedia enterprise. Even in areas of hard news coverage, the compelling character-driven videos by reporters like foreign correspondent C.J. Chivers have given the NYT a new way to demonstrate its dominance.
But while the NYT's relationship with Pogue has meant a massive increase in page views and publicity, it has also given Pogue unusual sway with the NYT and its rule book.
The NYT has long prided itself on a strict firewall between critics and the institutions whose products they review. For example, it would be unheard of for a NYT theater critic to accept a speaking fee from the The Broadway League, or for a NYT movie critic to take money from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for a speech -- or even to appear at events sponsored by those industry groups. It's difficult to imagine a freelance NYT critic doing so without suffering serious consequences, if not outright dismissal.
Pogue's main competition in the personal technology field, Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, posts his own strict ethics policy on the All Things D website where he contributes. It says, in part:
I also don't accept trips, speaking fees, or product discounts from companies whose products I cover, or from their public relations or advertising agencies. I don't serve as a consultant to any companies, or serve on any corporate boards or advisory boards. I do occasionally take a free t-shirt from these companies, but my wife hates it when I wear them, as she considers them ugly.
Pogue posts no such guidelines on his website, www.davidpogue.com. It does, however, offer quick access to the "Pogue-o-matic," the writer's handy online guide to product purchasing (with prices, reviews and Pogue's comments) that's also available on the NYT website.