Last Friday, NYT technology columnist David Pogue spoke at Epcot/Walt Disney World in Orlando -- his fee, travel and accommodations paid for by the Raytheon Company, one of the nation's biggest defense contractors -- about "the changing social media landscape," as a Raytheon spokesman explained it to The NYTPicker.
Pogue shared the podium with retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a prime target of David Barstow's Pulitzer Prize-winning NYT investigation into the Defense Department's use of military personnel as paid media analysts.
Was Pogue's speech a violation of NYT policies? Probably. His acceptance of a speaking fee automatically goes against the NYT's rule about taking payment for a speaking engagement from anyone other than a nonprofit. No doubt, in this new climate of caution, Pogue probably got prior approval from his editors to take Raytheon's money to line his already fat wallet.
Would the NYT consider firing Pogue for such a thing? Hardly. In fact, the paper does everything possible to allow its high-profile columnist and website draw to keep his job. Even after the NYT's Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, questioned the integrity of his outside dealings, Pogue gets to write Apple support manuals and keep roaming the country, collecting fees from anyone. And even after he told an interviewer recently that he was "not a reporter," he also gets to keep pretending he is one -- identified at the Raytheon confab and elsewhere as "David Pogue of the New York Times."
Meanwhile, it became clear yesterday that the NYT is considering the fate of the very funny and talented Mike Albo, one of its "Critical Shopper" columnists and an occasional travel writer, in light of news that he took a free trip to Jamaica last weekend, courtesy of Thrillist and Jet Blue. Media columnist Jeff Bercovici broke the news on AOL's Daily Finance website under the headline, "Ethics Takes A Holiday," and took the NYT and Albo to task for the rules violation.
[In another absurd overreaction, Bercovici had earlier in the week called for Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli's resignation in the wake of the controversy over his recent confession that he knew those salons were off the record. Dude makes NYTPicker look like a softie.]
Yesterday, in light of Bercovici's reporting and the later linking to his post on sites like Romenesko, the NYT issued a statement suggesting that Albo's job might be in trouble because of the trip, which also had a Newsweek staffer aboard the Jamaica junket. A NYT spokeswoman told Bercovici:
After a further review of the details, we do have concerns about Mike Albo's participation in the Jamaica trip organized by Thrillist. To the extent feasible, we apply our strict ethical standards to all Times contributors, and accepting free trips and other giveaways is at odds with those standards. We will be discussing the situation further with Mr. Albo and his editors at The Times.
Whether Bill Keller and his team realizes it or not, Albo is one of the NYT's great assets. His bi-weekly column is a hilarious take on the world of retail fashion, told from the perspective of a penniless freelancer who stares longingly at cashmere sweaters he can't afford. He's a stylist of the first rank, way better than most of the NYT's full-time reporters who can't even locate the paper bag they need to write their way out of.
Fine. Discuss the situation. Tell Albo he can't do it again. Pay for his trip if it'll make you feel better. But whatever you do, don't make Mike Albo the sacrificial lamb for your hypocrisy. Until you're ready to squarely address Pogue's endless hair-splitting of rules in pursuit of outside income, the NYT has no right to make Albo feel bad for taking a quick, paid vacation from the life of a struggling NYT freelancer.