The conflict over conflicts of interest

RECENTLY, THE NEW YORK TIMES PUBLISHED A STORY profiling a welter of financial conflicts of interest in the work of former Times journalist William Laurence, described as “a bold accumulator of outside pay from the government agencies he covered.” He also took money from the World’s Fair, the article notes, while using the Times’s editorial voice to promote the construction of a controversial and expensive science exhibit for the fair.

Laurence’s financial entanglements, which were largely condoned by the newspaper when they played out more than fifty years ago, were part and parcel of an unfortunate and bygone “freewheeling, rough-and-tumble era” of journalism, the Times notes, pointing to the tough ethical guidelines that today keep reporters on the straight and narrow.

But, in truth, the Times, like many news outlets, still struggles to manage journalists who have financial relationships with the subjects of their reporting.

In July, the Times suspended veteran sports reporter Karen Crouse when it emerged that she was co-authoring a book with former Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps at the same time she was glowingly covering Phelps for the Times. Around the same time, another undisclosed conflict of interest had to be corrected at the Times when a journalist quoted her literary agent as an independent expert. The newspaper later removed the quote.

And this followed a two-week period in March when the Times announced corrections—or “updates”—to twelve previously published columns from three different writers to address undisclosed conflicts of interest. This spate of corrections resulted not from the Times’s editorial due diligence, but because outside investigators publicized the newspaper’s ethical oversights.

The first corrections followed a BuzzFeed News report about columnist David Brooks’s paid work for an Aspen Institute project. Brooks wrote about the project (and one of its funders, Facebook) in the Times without disclosing his financial ties to Aspen, BuzzFeed reported. The Times agreed that Brooks’s work with Aspen Institute was a conflict of interest, and announced that he had resigned his paid position with the institute. The paper also announced it was issuing belated financial disclosures to several of his previously published columns (six by my count).

It seemed like a robust response—but through another lens, the Times appears to be making Brooks the fall guy for its own ethical lapses. The writer had previously cleared the Aspen project with his editors. So while Twitter users roasted Brooks, they should have also been grilling the Times’s editors—who have a history of overlooking conflicts among columnists.

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