In Monday's NYT, longtime metro reporter Sam Roberts delivered a ho-hom account of efforts to restore Jamaica Bay's environment in the wake of a giant, decade-long government dredging project.
The article explains that the cleanup effort was pushed forward largely through the efforts of the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, a nonprofit organization.
The article doesn't mention that the Conservancy's highly-paid president and CEO, Marie Salerno, is Roberts's wife.
While the story doesn't directly focus on the Conservancy, it does quote Emily Lloyd, a former New York environmental protection commissioner, as saying that the bay "lacked a real consistency" until the Conservancy stepped in to help clean up after the government dredging machinery.
Roberts also forgets to mention that Lloyd is on the board of directors of the Conservancy. Whoops!
Another fact that escaped inclusion in the piece: Marian S. Heiskell -- identified only as the Conservancy's chairwoman -- is the sister of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, and a former member of the NYT Company's board of directors. Whoops again!
But we know what you're thinking; hey, what's so bad about an article that focuses on the do-good efforts of a nonprofit, even though it happens to involve the wife of the reporter? Not to mention the aunt of the newspaper's publisher!
Well, if that's your position, Sam Roberts agrees with you.
We asked Roberts yesterday if he felt he'd been in violation of the NYT's strict ethics rules -- which clearly state that "staff members may not furnish, prepare or supervise news content about relatives, spouses or others with whom they have close personal relationships" -- by writing about his wife, who according to 2007 tax records earned $154,350 a year as the Conservancy's president and CEO..
"Only if one argues that making bigger islands will bring more visitors which will bring more attention to the bay and its potential for recreation, environment, history, harbor transportation, tourism, the economy," Roberts said via email, "which are the goals of all of the partners mentioned in the project."
Well, yes. Those are the goals.
But as we all know, New York City plays host to hundreds, maybe even thousands of nonprofiits with wonderful goals, and who would dearly love to have their good deeds splayed across the metro pages of the NYT.
We also know that such publicity plays a crucial role in fundraising for future projects, which in turn means higher salaries for staff, better jobs, etc. It's may be for a good cause, but Salerno makes more money than many NYT reporters -- and than most New Yorkers in general, for that matter.
In other words, we see the ethics rules as designed specifically to avoid situations like this, in which a husband writes articles that in any way promote the livelihood of a spouse -- whether it's a civic function, political role or a private business.
Think of it this way: positive publicity helps a nonprofit's cause, which helps support the continued six-figure incomes of its paid leadership. It's an unfair advantage that results directly from personal access, in this case between husband and wife.
But that hasn't stopped Sam Roberts from repeatedly inserting mentions of the Conservancy in the NYT. Over the last six years, the Conservancy has appeared in five NYT stories -- all under Roberts's byline.
He told The NYTPicker yesterday that a "Metro editor," who he didn't identify, was aware of his personal connection to the Conservancy, and approved him writing about it in advance.
When we asked Roberts if he thought his wife's leadership of the Conservancy was "relevant" to the story, he replied:
"It is relevant to the extent that it would have been derelict not to mention the Conservancy's tangential involvement. The genesis of the story was an interview with the new commandant of the Army Corps. It evolved into what I found to be a fascinating story about the environment and the economy of the port that might not have appeared unless a reporter -- in this case me -- was interested in pursing it."
He also said he wife didn't have anything to do with the preparation of the story. That's good!
We don't want to label this an "ethics breach," even though we do feel it violates both the letter and spirit of the NYT's rules. In the grand scheme of things -- working for a paper that currently allows a health-care blogger to hold millions of dollars in health-care stock while writing about the industry, in direct violation of NYT policies -- it's small potatoes, and for a good cause.
Still, we expect a newspaper like the NYT -- one that holds itself to the highest standards of integrity in journalism -- to make more effort not to look like a small-town paper that promotes its staff's pet causes, and its owner's favorite charities.
The phrase "without fear or favor" -- introduced as part of the NYT's principles in 1896 by then-publisher Adolph Ochs -- implies that no one, including members of the NYT staff, gets special access to the news pages purely by proximity.
Those are the words that inspired the rules. We believe the NYT ought to apply them equally, or not bother with them at all.