Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Real Problem: NYT Lets Freelancer David Pogue Bend Ethics Rules. It's Time To Either Enforce The Rules Equally, Or Change Them.

In a comment on our website several minutes ago, NYT technology columnist David Pogue vehemently defended himself against accusations of NYT ethics rules violations.

But Pogue not only got the rules wrong, he didn't both mention the other rules the NYT has that govern public speaking -- most of which he has gotten around, without any consequence, by getting the NYT's approval.

Here's the real problem: While the NYT has fired talented young freelancers like Mike Albo for technical infractions of its byzantine rules, it has chosen not to enforce those same rules on Pogue, simply because he's too valuable to discipline, or to fire.

In fact -- despite his continued insistence that he follows all the NYT's ethics rules -- Pogue has a speaking engagement lined up at MacWorld next month that yet again breaks them. But, as usual, the NYT will look the other way.

Here's part of what Pogue declared in his most recent comment to The NYTPicker:

Edward (and other commenters) miss a key point here: the Times DOES NOT prohibit staffers from speaking to corporations in general!

The rule is this: "Staff members should be sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups *that might figure in their coverage.*"

In other words, you can't accept payment for speaking at a company I MIGHT WRITE ABOUT (or its competitors). So Raytheon is fine--I have never written about Raytheon, and never will.

But it is, in fact, Pogue who has missed a key point here. Here is what the NYT rule Pogue cites says in full:

Speaking before community audiences or educational groups can benefit our company by helping the public understand what we do. But before appearing before an outside group, we must be sure we are not likely to create an actual or apparent conflict of interest or undermine public trust in the impartiality of our journalism.

In other words, the rule Pogue cites as justification? It has only to do with speaking before "community audiences and educational groups." And the NYT even restricts those sorts of appearances, in the next paragraph of the rules:

Staff members should be sensitive to the appearance of partiality when they address groups that might figure in their coverage, especially if the setting might suggest a close relationship to the sponsoring group. Before accepting such an invitation, a staff member must consult with newsroom management. Generally, for example, an editor who deals with political campaigns might comfortably address a library gathering but not appear before a civic group that endorses issues or candidates. An environmental reporter can appropriately speak to a horticultural society but not to conservation groups known for their efforts to influence public policy.

Still, Pogue says that his appearances in front of for-profit corporations -- transportation and accommodations provided at the company's expense -- don't go against NYT rules.

"Raytheon is fine," Pogue declares.

But while the NYT rules allow speaking to profit-making institutions with the paper's permission, they state that the NYT -- not the company -- must pay the speaker's expenses.

To avoid an appearance of undue closeness, staff members may not accept invitations to speak before a single company (for example, at a corporate executive retreat) or an industry assembly (such as organized baseball's winter meeting) unless newsroom management agrees that the appearance is useful and does not undermine our reputation for impartiality. In such a case, our company should pay any expenses; no speaker's fee should be accepted.

In other words, NYT rules would allow Pogue to speak at a Raytheon retreat, as he did in November at Disney World, with the paper's permission -- but only if the NYT pays his travel and accommodation expenses.

Anyone want to bet whether the NYT paid for Pogue's trip to Disney World?

As for Pogue's forthcoming speech at MacWorld in San Francisco next month -- well, here's the rule that should theoretically keep Pogue from appearing:

Staff members should not accept invitations from outside our company to speak where their function is to attract customers to an event primarily intended as profit-making.

MacWorld is, of course, a for-profit annual trade show that charges large admission fees to people and companies that follow products made by Apple. Pogue has been a frequent speaker at the annual event. The NYT rule directly prohibits such speeches.

The NYT is surely well aware that Pogue's MacWorld appearances goes against the rules, but has apparently made a decision to turn a blind eye to his trade-show work.

When The NYTPicker reported on a Pogue appearance at a Consumer Electronics Association trade show last June, then-NYT spokeswoman Catherine Mathis issued a statement that gently chastised Pogue for his appearance, but acknowledged it would do nothing to discipline him:

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.

It's true that the vast majority of Pogue's appearances play by the NYT rules, such as speeches to libraries, educational conferences, and so forth. Those are the speeches that dominate his schedule.

It's when Pogue's appearances go against the point of the NYT rules (such as the Raytheon talk, and the forthcoming MacWorld speech) that the NYT's double standard becomes clear. The NYT will ignore Pogue's activities, while policing the behavior of other NYT contributors to the point of firing them for a single infraction -- or even just the prospect of one.

This past week, according to Public Editor Clark Hoyt, the NYT "parted company" with freelancer Joshua Robinson because of a suggestion that he was attempting to get free airline tickets from an airline magazine to do travel stories. Nowhere in Hoyt's account of what happened was there any suggestion that Robinson ever received a free ticket from anyone. While he may have broken NYT rules, there doesn't appear to be a significant ethical lapse in his behavior.

Meanwhile, the NYT permits all of Pogue's outside activities for one reason: he is hugely popular with readers and with advertisers, at a time when the NYT is struggling to survive. Pogue's power to attract readers to the NYT website is virtually unmatched by any of his peers.

There's no question, as several commentators have suggested this week, that the NYT's ethics rules need adjustment in its new, freelance-driven universe. "The system is not working well," Clark Hoyt conceded in today's column.

In fact, the system is broken. It's clearly unfair to make outside contributors (even ones as successful as Pogue) conform to the same strict regulations that govern staffers who get all their expenses paid by the NYT -- not to mention their union salaries and health-insurance premiums.

But as long as the current rules are in force, the NYT will apparently continue to let Pogue keep bending them with its permission. It needs to either enforce the rules equally on all contributors, or change them. We vote for a change.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps the real hypocrisy is the Times - and other publications - trying to pretend they can do with freelancers what they used to do with staffers. Fact is, they can't and rather than continue the pretense that journalistic quality has been unaffected, they should just forget conflict of interest for freelancers and ran a disclaimer with every freelance piece.

David D. said...

Slow news day?

poguenyt said...

There's no bending of the rules on my account, David.

My upcoming Macworld and CES talks are unpaid. Both are freebies--not even expenses or travel will be paid by those trade shows--and both were approved by The Times's ethics czars.

But if free seminars at trade shows are what sends up red flags for you, you've got plenty of work to do! Walt Mossberg, Ed Baig (USA Today), Leo Laporte, and dozens of other journalists routinely appear at these tradeshows.

Incidentally: Why don't you write a post about the talks I've *turned down* in accordance with Times policy? You and your crack team of investigators should have no trouble finding out that in 2009 alone, I declined talks at Google, Microsoft, Apple, Nuance, Citrix, and other companies... because I do, in fact, abide by the Times's speaking policies.

I realize it's much better for your blog to make news where none exists. But on this one, it's starting to look like you're really flailing!


David G. said...

The pyramid system clouding over publishing and distribution is opaque and is anything but a game.
Pogue keeps on gambling.
And not just on Mac or Apple. On Dec 10/09, Pogue and CNBC producer Iqbal market e-readers. Nook, is defended by an actor who becomes increasingly agitated and ends with verbal assaults toward another actor who points out the product's shortcomings.

Pogue protectively holds the Kindle, there is no mention of price, and a most zombifying jingle drones out the circus talk.

Now, maybe the stats to which the public has no access justify internally treating Pogue with kid gloves. But product placement should be paid for.

Anonymous said...

Stop it. Just stop. Quit flogging this, OK?

Pogue, a star columnist, gets star treatment, and a no-name freelancer gets canned.

Oh my god, I'm shocked!

You've made your point, now knock it off. We got it.

Anonymous said...

Let's for a moment drop the word "freelancers" and call them what they are legally regarded as: "independent contractors." And there are huge implications for an employer imposing rules on how independent contractors do business.

Anonymous said...

Why does David Pogue keep addressing his comments to himself? What a narcissist.

Anonymous said...

Re: "Let's for a moment drop the word "freelancers" and call them what they are legally regarded as: "independent contractors." "

As the accompanying thread has pointed out, Pogue refers to himself as "New York Times Columnist."

Edward Champion said...

David (Pogue, not the mysterious "David" who Pogue keeps referring to): Thanks for the comments. In the interest of total transparency, why not just offer a full list of the 50 speaking engagements that you accepted in 2009? That way, the people can decide if you have abided by the ethics policy. Wouldn't that settle the matter once and for all?

Anonymous said...

It's been my experience that - even if the NYT likes a freelancer's story idea - they won't pay freelancers' travel expenses. In fact, they sometimes make it a crutch for rejection. (i.e. To do the story right, you need face time with the subject, but we can't get you there. Then --even if you do get there on your own, they'll tell you: our freelance budget has been cut so we can't pay you what you've customarily been making for similar pieces. Bottom line: It's impossible to break even writing for the NYT unless you do it full-time (without benefits) and can get everywhere on your own miles or trust fund.

I'm all for journalistic integrity and am appalled that writers would not recuse themselves when there's an obvious conflict of interest and/or misrepresent themselves as it seems Robinson did.

David D. said...

Re David G's: "And not just on Mac or Apple. On Dec 10/09, Pogue and CNBC producer Iqbal market e-readers. Nook, is defended by an actor who becomes increasingly agitated and ends with verbal assaults toward another actor who points out the product's shortcomings.

Pogue protectively holds the Kindle, there is no mention of price, and a most zombifying jingle drones out the circus talk."

I think you are really reaching here, David G.

So, let me get this straight, in the video, Pogue compared the claims, features, and performance of the Nook to the product that it is directly competing with, the Kindle. So, in reviewing the Nook, he compared it to the other major e-book reader on the market.

And that is a problem, or some further proof of corporate influence? Considering that he reviews gadgets, and everyone's first question about the Nook is whether or not it is the 'Kindle Killer' as it claims to be, his comparing the two sounds like, well, his job. The POINT of such product reviews.

As for the CNBC video and the use of actors and their emotional states, etc., well, it is a comedy video. Of course it is over the top. The actual product review is in print, and the video is a playful way to compare the two products. One would have to be absolutely media illiterate to not be able to understand that a comedy video, in which actors play electronic products, and Pogue pretends to be a television interview, is going to be more entertainment than journalism. Which is not to say the problems of the product in the video are not material. They are, they are the same criticisms made in print. That is why the videos are merely a companion to the print columns. And I think anyone who bothers to view them probably understands that.

Christopher Gray said...

I don't know David Pogue, but I've always taught my children that ganging up on people is despicable - especially when the gang is anonymous. If bloggers had written the Declaration of Independence, there would have been enough room at the bottom for the Treaty of Paris.

Christopher Gray

Virginie Burgesse said...

David D. aims a jittery shot at the fortified opposition, reads as a lone pawn locked out of sugar mountain.

There exists a lobby whose agenda is to lower the standards of the media towards more entertainment than journalism. Entertainment and comedy are also to be denied of their pluralistic values and quality craft. Only the never slowing illiterati and only on a slow afternoon acknowledge the not-so free enterprise that strips Apple, Amazon, Fox, Disney, and all new media Inc of their corporate missions to engulf them into the bonfire.

Anonymous said...

He prefaces his Pogie awards of 2009, by stating that it would be too obvious to award specific products (rather than ideas). Obvious? Is that a disclaimer?

He then goes on to award specific products and brands.

Take, the Mifi, wireless adaptor on 2 cellphone networks: Sprint, hyperlinked, logo displayed. Verizon, no. Is this reaching and a ganging? You betchya. Does this consumer have a far superior device that is hard to come by now and forever, betchyudwanna know.

Inka said...

Check out Virginia Postrel's recent posting about these ethical problems at the NYT. I think she hits the nail on the head:

Anonymous said...

Rather than being versed in lines and writing in winged words, or becoming famed for a craft of wiles, Mr. Pogue, at his own expense, could to travel to Japan, land of lovely Tech and summon thence items of contrast with our own heavier tools.

Or, of course stay the course ontoward that parcel of allocated dreamland and here's some ruddy wine as you cross the bridge expertly nailed by Virginia.

It is not so quite nameless after all, and there are no ethical czars by definition.

Anonymous said...

It looks like Harvard's hospitals are shutting down the kind of fun enjoyed by Prof. Tripas. As someone points out, if the academic institutions just become extensions of industry, will they be entitled to any tax break or any societal support?

The students at Harvard biz school should be asking whether they're getting real advice from Prof. Tripas or whether she's been corrupted by her research trips.

I know that this isn't how we think today, but as someone in the hospital article says, there are things that were okay several years ago but aren't okay today.

Maybe this dust up will inspire Harvard's biz school to think about what their professors are doing.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to know who is stupider, David the NYTPicker or his weird cabal of defenders.

Vancouver NYT reader said...

Regarding Pogue's defense in the third post, he misses the key point -- the ethics rules the NYT has set out are to prevent "actual and apparent" conflicts of interest. It doesn't matter that he is not being paid to speak at Macworld and CES -- in other words, it doesn't matter that there is no actual conflict of interest. It still creates an "apparent" conflict.

After all, the fact that he is unpaid still leaves lingering questions, such as, why would he give his services for free, using his profile as a NYT columnist, to help bolster the profitability of private enterprises? What's in it for him?

I'm sure he has valid answers for those questions, but that's not the point. The point is that his activities make the questions exist. And that's what the ethics rules are designed to prevent. The rules are still being bent and broken, even if there is no "actual" benefit to Pogue.

Bradley J. Fikes said...

David Pogue's Distraction Field is set on maximum:

"But if free seminars at trade shows are what sends up red flags for you, you've got plenty of work to do! Walt Mossberg, Ed Baig (USA Today), Leo Laporte, and dozens of other journalists routinely appear at these tradeshows."

Look over there! Something shiny!

"Incidentally: Why don't you write a post about the talks I've *turned down* in accordance with Times policy?"

In PogueWorld, obeying the Times ethics policy in some instances apparently means you can break them in other instances.

The NYT should be grateful to have such a paragon of journalistic rectitude on its payroll.

Anonymous said...

I guess Pogue is saying ... as his and my people said back in the bogs ...
pogue mahone.

Anonymous said...

Judging by his blog logo-a face with one shut eye, and the other the switch symbol-he is entirely possessed and on remote control. Could be that free enterprise access to the Pogue shell open to accredited personnel has outserved its purpose. Cabal prescribes salutary deprogramming and dignified restoration.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous wrote: "Judging by his blog logo--a face with one shut eye, and the other the switch symbol--he is entirely possessed and on remote control."

OK, so now you're criticizing Pogue for a cartoon of him drawn by someone else, commissioned by some art director at The Times?

You people really ARE on drugs.

Anonymous said...

Oh give me a break. Speaking at Macworld is an ethical conflict of interest? I think you're really stretching here. I was so outraged by this that I think I fell asleep halfway through this post.

Anonymous said...

Hey! This anonymous posting is cool! You can say whatever you want, as viciously or enviously as you want, and there aren't any consequences because nobody knows who you are!! Like throwing a spear from behind a wall!

As for the piece itself, I'm a huge fan of Pogue, so I tried to read it with an open mind. I read and thought about the whole darn lengthy article, together with Pogue's rebuttal. My view: since he spoke for free and travelled on the paper's dime, any violation of the paper's ethics policy was abstract and insignificant. If Pogue were biased or in some company's pocket, the market long ago would have distrusted and rejected him. His gigantic following shows that the opposite is true.

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