Staff members and others on assignment for us must obey the law in the gathering of news. They may not break into buildings, homes, apartments or offices.
--The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism
In pursuing scandal rumors about Gov. David Paterson last February, a NYT reporter apparently entered the apartment of a central figure in its story without permission -- having talked the person's 13-year-old son into letting the reporter in.
This revelation came in the sworn testimony of the governor to Judge Judith Kaye, who issued her report today on her investigation into Paterson's actions -- a report that cleared the governor of any charges of criminal witness tampering in the case.
In the report, Paterson testified that in his first phone conversation on February 7 with Sherr-Una Booker -- the woman involved in a domestic violence incident with former Paterson aide David Johnson -- the two discussed repeated efforts by the NYT to interview her for a story about the governor.
The report says: "Booker testified that that she told the Governor about incidents with a Times reporter and then asked the Governor to get the media 'off [her] back.'"
But it's in Paterson's account of the call that the NYT's stunning reporting strategy is revealed.
"The Governor testified that Booker told him that a Times reporter had visited her apartment while she was out, and had persuaded her 13-year-old son to allow the reporter inside," the Kaye report says. "According to the Governor, at the reporter’s request, Booker’s son called his mother, so that the reporter could speak with her. The reporter asked Booker to provide her side of the story, representing that he had already heard from the Governor. Booker declined to comment and told the reporter to leave her apartment."
The report doesn't identify the name of the reporter, or say what happened next. The page-one story that eventually appeared on February 25 -- "Question of Influence in Abuse Case of Paterson Aide" -- carried the bylines of William K. Rashbaum, Danny Hakim, David Kocieniewski and Serge F. Kovaleski.
Does the permission of a 13-year-old boy give a reporter the right to enter a private home? The NYT's ethics rules don't specifically address the point. But we think it's helpful, in situations like this, for reporters to consider how they would feel if the situation were reversed, and answer these questions:
Would a NYT reporter or editor be unhappy to learn that a reporter was inside their apartment without their permission -- allowed in by an unsuspecting young child, incapable of making a sound judgement? And was it necessary for the reporter to enter the apartment in order to reach Booker by phone?
Assuming Paterson's sworn testimony is true, this marks the second time in recent months that a NYT reporter has entered a private home without proper permission. In reporting a City Room blog post about jazz pianist Hank Jones, Corey Kilgannon entered his apartment the day after his death, with only the permission of his roommate/landlord, and without getting permission from a family member. That ignited a firestorm of criticism of Kilgannon's tactics from Jones's family and friends.
It's time for the NYT to expand its rules about the invasion of privacy, so that none of us has to fear the possibility of coming home to unexpectedly find a NYT reporter in our living room.