A Flexible Standard On News Ethics

If you were a news editor, would you run a story that centered on activists who posed as customers at a place of business in order to investigate claims that it was violating ethical and legal standards in its operation?

How about a story by a reporter who crashed a private gathering to learn something that common sense would have suggested most people already knew?

If you are the public editor of The New York Times, you evidently would turn up your nose at journalists who spread the story in the first case, and applaud the story produced by the journalist (who happened to be your own paper’s reporter) in the second.

Back in 2009, Clark Hoyt, who was then the Times’ public editor, examined the level at which the Times covered – or failed to cover – the then-recent news connected to the community organizing group Acorn. A video sting caught certain Acorn workers counseling undercover activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute as to the best methods for remaining undiscovered and cheating on their taxes. The videos, which were distributed online and by Fox News, led to a chain reaction that included the Senate voting to cut all federal funding to Acorn.

Amid the debate over whether the activists were doing the work of lax journalists, Hoyt wrote, “[…] most news organizations consider such tactics unethical – The Times specifically prohibits reporters from misrepresenting themselves or making secret recordings.” He defended the Times’ decision to treat the story solely as a political one, though he did acknowledge that the paper’s news staff could have reacted more swiftly.

In contrast, Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ current public editor, recently defended reporter Eric Lipton in the wake of his decision to attend a private political event to which the press was not invited. Lipton gave only his first name when a staff member at the event asked who he was; after a few minutes, when he had already heard (and apparently secretly recorded) some of the remarks, he was asked for further identification. He then gave his full name and disclosed his affiliation with The Times, at which point he was asked to leave. Lipton later used some remarks from the event in an article about Sen. Max Baucus’ former aides who have become lobbyists.

Sullivan wrote, “What Mr. Lipton did should not become an everyday practice. But – seen in this wider context – it’s not only pretty small stuff, but also reflects some journalistic initiative that serves Times readers well.”

Is this splitting hairs? Did the reporter not misrepresent himself by only giving his first name when asked? Was he not deliberately representing himself as having been invited when he was not? Was there a compelling public interest that would justify the reporter’s actions?

This raises the question of what, in fact, Lipton learned through his deception. In the pertinent section of his article, he quoted Paul Wilkins, Baucus’ chief of staff, in characterizing the money fundraised for Baucus’ (now moot) re-election campaign as allowing them to “scare off opponents.” Wilkins went on to thank the lobbyists in attendance, some who whom were Baucus’ former aides, for their support.

In short, Lipton learned that, behind closed doors, an incumbent politician wanted to raise a lot of money for re-election because it would deter potential challengers, and that his chief of staff was grateful to his campaign donors. Anyone who has spent any time at all in a capital city knows as much. Hardly compelling.

Moreover, in the case of the Acorn sting (or scam, depending on your perspective), the posers entered a place of business, where most of us would expect at least some contact with the outside world. The meeting Lipton attended was held at a townhouse, and was expressly closed to the public and the press. If I throw a party and leave the front door unlocked for my guests, are strangers entitled to enter and stay until someone expressly asks them to leave? By what right?

It is perfectly fair for the public that consumes The New York Times’ journalism to wonder how the paper’s editorial decisions are reached. Is The Times ready to put cameras in the room where it holds its daily news meeting so it can stream the discussion live online? Or to turn its newsroom into the set of a reality TV series? Doubtless politicians speak differently when they have some expectation of privacy. So do journalists – and everyone else, for that matter.

Can journalistic ends justify the means? Sometimes. But the Baucus fundraiser does not rise to the level of publishing the Pentagon Papers. And although different public editors will naturally have different interpretations of similar situations, Sullivan’s column smacks of rationalizing, rather than impartial review.

If this is the best The Times’ public editor can manage, maybe a better place to have examined Lipton’s conduct would have been the newspaper’s Ethicist column.

About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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