Friday, July 16, 2010

Ethics Breach: NYT's Brian Stelter Announces On TimesCast That He's Happily Bought An iPhone 4. "I Can't Imagine Returning It," He Says.

50. "Staff members may not offer endorsements or testimonials for books, films, television programs or any other programs, products or ventures."

--NYT Company Policy On Ethics In Journalism.

On Wednesday's edition of "TimesCast," Brian Stelter -- who has written about Apple many times in his capacity as a TV and digital media reporter for the NYT -- made a rather startling statement in the midst of being interviewed about the current controversy over the new iPhone 4.

"And yet as much as I think that Apple can suffer from this," Stelter declared, "I still went ahead and ordered an iPhone 4 last week and I’m still eagerly awaiting it to arrive."

And as for the dropped-call issues that have caused a media firestorm and class-action suits, Stelter stated flatly that those matters don't concern him enough to reconsider his decision.

"I can’t imagine returning it because these phones are so…these phones are such a part of our lives," Stelter told NYT tech blogger Nick Bilton. "These are, really, more and more, they feel like extensions of our hands."

We don't have a problem with Stelter buying an iPhone 4, of course. That's a private decision, and a matter of personal preference. And if Stelter were a columnist or critic, we wouldn't object to him publicly talking about his tastes in phones or computers, the way David Pogue or David Carr do.

But as a NYT reporter, for Stelter to publicly state a preference for the iPhone on a NYT broadcast -- as opposed to, say, an Android or BlackBerry -- represents a clear endorsement of one product over another, in clear violation of the NYT prohibition on endorsements.

Beyond that, Stelter's announcement that he "can't imagine returning" the iPhone is taking sides in a controversy which -- as he well knows -- is still being hotly debated in the smart phone industry and among customers. The NYT has reported frequently on the complaints, class-action suits and other issues surrounding the iPhone 4's problems with dropped phone calls.

In fact, Stelter himself addressed those issues as a preface to his iPhone 4 endorsement.

"It's a pivotal moment for Apple because they haven't had a glitch of this magnitude before," Stelter said. "And they haven't had to respond to it over the course of weeks. Consumer Reports coming out this week and saying, 'We don't recommend this phone.' Really it came down with a lot of weight. And it reveals that this is only going to to worsen for Apple."

But those issues didn't dissuade Stelter from publicly discussing his purchase on the NYT website, in direct violation of rules that exist to keep reporters from making public statements about their private preferences.

Contacted by The NYTPicker, Stelter declined to comment.

UPDATE: David Folkenflik, a media correspondent for NPR who we greatly admire, just re-tweeted this story with this question attached: "What if he said he loved Springsteen?" Okay, we'll bite.

To love Springsteen is to express a musical taste, not a product preference. Yes, we'll grant that Springsteen makes money when people buy his music. But Springsteen's primary objective in writing music isn't to make money -- whereas Apple, a publicly-traded company, exists to make money for its shareholders.

You can feel free to disagree with us, Dave, but we don't think it's fair to consider Springsteen's music a "product." And when we buy a Springsteen album or download a Springsteen song -- or when we tell our friends how much we dig The Boss -- it doesn't preclude us from buying the latest hit from Beyonce or Taylor Swift, moments later.

But we don't have two cell phones in our pocket, and we doubt you do, either. By announcing to the world that he has chosen the iPhone over the Android or the BlackBerry, Stelter has endorsed a product in a competitive industry he himself covers -- which is exactly what those pesky NYT ethics rules were written to prevent.


Anonymous said...

TimesCast forces reporters to talk on camera and say things they'd never put in the paper. The real culprit here is the TimesCast producer who let that slip through. It doesn't look like any editors even watch the thing before they post it.

Anonymous said...

> But Springsteen's primary objective in writing music isn't to make money

So what is it -- to express his love for New Jersey? Please. Of course his music is a "product", and of course he does it to make money. Have you seen how much his concert tickets go for?

Lighten up, Francis.

Alex said...

What, seriously, was the point of interviewing a journalist about the iPhone? Why not interview a researcher at Consumer Reports about the standards slipping at Apple? Or a lawyer about the lawsuits? Or a few consumers about how they feel about all this?

The Times has to come out of the delusion that there is nothing more important, more special, more sacred, than a New York Times reporter opening his or her mouth to yammer about something.

FGFM said...

"These are, really, more and more, they feel like extensions of our hands."

I bet.

Anonymous said...

Props to Stelter for having the decency to decline comment, instead of the usual NYT bullshit response to NYTPicker, "We don't comment to anonymous bloggers."

By the way, is Stelter the guy in the video actually buying an iPhone with a wad of cash? The whole segment looks like a paid ad for Apple.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I'm taken aback by how sweeping that policy is. Does that mean a Times writer cannot provide a jacket blurb for a friend's or colleague's book?

Anonymous said...

Not to polish Apple, but the intentions behind the loudest complaints are suspect. Are they bothered that there are some things the iphone won’t do? Like hypnotize the user with vending machine style mind access to manchurian handlers that make the used think things like how much they love slave labor, or how much they love potatoes or electroshock or turn them into nymphomaniacs that are then sent to turn trust fund babies to overlook transgression of the remainder of his inheritance?

It’s archaic compared to what it should be, and because it’s not shitty enough, the pellet turds are getting seriously overworked.

Anonymous said...

It's annoying to me, as a reader, that the NYT publishes these rules, but then ignores violations of them when NYTPicker points them out. What's the point of having rules if there's no consequence to breaking them?

Anonymous said...

That "extension of hands" comment is nonsensical. As Steve Jobs said yesterday, "it's just a phone."

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous who asked why have rules if you just ignore them anyway. The Times is not alone in this. Pretty much about half the places I have worked for in my life have done the same thing. It's mainly so marginally qualified management types can ignore everything up to the entire building being on fire. The Catch-22 logic being "Well, our employees have all read the handbook, so they know what they can't do. Therefore, no one would do the thing you're complaining about because it's specifically proscribed in the handbook. But I value your input."

Anonymous said...

The inconvenient nuisance is that as more flawed habits are exposed on display, the rate of crackdown is met with the reality of people’s unincorporated opinions. It’s not via the iphone that the minds of unskilled reporters with little life experience are to be bulldozed over for more appealing journalistic output and less of a hygienic fallout. It’s not
a protectorate’s sorcery either.

Anonymous said...

Buying a Springsteen song is an expression of musical taste; it is also the purchase of a product. But you're right, it is a poor analogy from a professional wordsmith at the New York Times, a source that ought to choose its analogies with more care than David Brooks.

Buying a Springsteen song means purchasing the right to hear the music and lyrics from a specific performance. It means the ability to play it over and over again for personal use without practical loss of song quality.

Buying it does not preclude you from buying other songs. It does not mean being locked into a two- or five-year contract that restricts your ability to play it to a single service provider's machines or technology. It does not mean losing playback quality when you stand too near your disc player or pick up your MP3.

The analogy is even worse in that Mr. Stelter is expressing a hard preference for a product he may have bought, but doesn't have. He does not yet depend on its performance for his livelihood, his social life or his personal safety. He is talking out of his hat and, yes, making a product endorsement.

At another time, this might be a tempest in a teapot - one earnest twit speaks out of turn - except that the Times is so full of such staff and editorial behavior nowadays that it's brewing a real storm.