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.