If the ethics police recruited me, I doubt that I’d ever rise higher on the force than flatfoot. It’s not that investigating journalistic conflicts of interest isn’t a worthy enterprise; it’s just that sorting out and adjudicating the particulars is too much of a tweezers-and-micrometer chore for my liking: I do my best work with a ball-peen hammer and a yardstick. Dispatch me after the reporter who allegedly plagiarized, but please don’t make me rule on whether a Washington Post reporter whose spouse works for the Department of Agriculture can cover politics for the paper, too.
But every now and again, I enter the ethics zone to see what, if anything, I’m missing. This week, an anonymous e-mailer asked if I knew that two New Yorker staff writers, Malcolm Gladwell and James Surowiecki, collect speaking fees from corporations and trade associations while writing on business topics for the magazine. Although the Anonymouse acknowledged that he could name no specific New Yorker article, paragraph, or sentence tainted by a speaking fee, he demanded that I bring this subject to the public’s attention. (The Leigh Agency represents both Gladwell and Surowiecki on the speaking circuit. See this page for a 45-minute video clip of Gladwell on the stump.)
I’ve repeatedly criticized other reporters for relying on anonymous sources, so I recognize the irony of me writing a piece based on an anonymous allegation. One important difference here, not necessarily in my favor, is that even I don’t know who’s throwing the mud balls at Gladwell and Surowiecki, whereas most reporters who publish anonymous comments know the identity of their anonymice. Please forgive me.
But anonymity didn’t give me enough reason to ignore the tip. Also, I’ll admit that Anonymouse goaded me into writing by claiming 1) that nobody would dare touch the subject because they all aspire to work for The New Yorker and 2) that Slate would ignore it because Gladwell is Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg’s close friend and Surowiecki, a former Slate columnist, dates a Slate staffer.
For the record, I have no ambitions to write for The New Yorker, but I wouldn’t mind having Editor David Remnick work for me. As for shielding Gladwell and Surowiecki, if there’s a “protect list” at Slate,nobody has given me a copy. Slate beat upThe New Yorker for a book excerpt it published in 2000, I criticized the magazine last year, and in 2002, Slate’s Kausfiles whacked Gladwell for having gotten the subject of estrogen and women wrong in the magazine. Gladwell, much the mensch, conceded the point a couple of days later in a note.
Leaving the back story behind, let’s shift to the foreground. I spoke to Remnick and Surowiecki about the charges but failed to reach Gladwell, who is out of the country. Here’s what they said.
Remnick defended his writers’ speaking engagements in a telephone conversation and elaborated on those thoughts in an e-mail. Since publishing his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell “has spoken to many groups and always on the same subject: The Tipping Point,” Remnick writes. “It is not a partisan speech and, as you know from his work, he is extremely eclectic in his interests and independent in his thinking. He is just about the least political or ideological writer on the staff—and wonderfully unpredictable.”
Remnick believes, as I do, that a publication should be judged first by the journalism it publishes. Is the work “fair, is it as complete and intellectually honest as it can be?” he writes. It’s telling that Anonymouse presents no substantive case against Gladwell or Surowiecki’s work in his e-mail. He does suggest that I check Gladwell’s recent article about drug prices for evidence that he’s a Big Pharma shill. Remnick responds to that change: “If the drug companies followed the direction of the piece, their profits would drop by more than half.” I agree. When the piece appeared, I e-mailed Gladwell my congratulations on a job well done.
Like Slate, The New Yorker maintains no master ethics manual, such as this 57-page bible from the New York Times. Perhaps the Times requires such a Talmudic document because it’s the only practical way to lead a nation-state that employs a thousand journalists. If the editors of the Times had to resolve every ethical question raised every day by every employee, I doubt that they’d get the newspaper out. Meanwhile, the managers of smaller publications—little villages, if you will—can cover similar issues in a quick, personal fashion. And, as any lawyer will tell you, a thicker legal code does not automatically predict a more law-abiding society.
As long as we’re passing judgment on the ethics of The New Yorker and its writers, it’s worth noting that the magazine, unlike daily newspapers or Slate, polishes and inspects its articles with an obsessive’s precision. Fact-checkers dissect the magazine’s pieces, atom by atom. The exacting editors work the copy until it’s raw and bleeding. I’m not saying The New Yorker is a perfect editorial machine, but good luck to the crooked writer trying to sneak a paid advertisement past the staff!
None of this is to suggest that The New Yorker should get an ethical pass. Earlier this year (Feb. 2, 2004), David Carr of the New York Times questioned the nature of Gladwell’s relationship with Simmons Market Research, which said it had formed “a research advisory alliance” with the writer. Remnick writes that Gladwell canceled that arrangement with the company in its infancy. “[H]e spoke at their luncheon for a fee; that was the sum total of his activity, and then, after it came up as an issue, we discussed it, and that was that,” Remnick writes.
When a writer contributes on such a wide range of topics as does Gladwell to The New Yorker—science, marketing, medicine, merchandising, health, fashion, race, advertising education, sociology, you name it—it becomes almost impossible to name his “beat.” If you can’t name his beat, how do you locate his potential conflicts? Do we really want to ban the writer who writes about everything from speaking about anything? I think not.
Drawing lines is easier when considering Surowiecki. He writes almost exclusively about business and economics in The New Yorker for its “Financial Page” column. He started lecturing for profit earlier this year after publishing his book The Wisdom of Crowdsand says that in his eight or nine paid engagements he has spoken only about his book. He insists he’s never taken money from any entity he’s written about or plans to write about and that he wouldn’t write about anybody he’d taken money from. Surowiecki is currently booked to speak at the Real Estate Connect 2005 conference. If you can determine the organization’s agenda and explain how he might compromise the magazine by speaking there, please drop me a line. (Interest declared: I’ve edited Surowiecki and consider him a friend.)
How much should journalists disclose about their outside sources of earned income? In 1990, Michael Willrich (an employee of mine at the time) proposed in a Washington Monthlyfeature that reporters reveal everything but their 1040s to demonstrate their impeccable ethical hygiene.
I didn’t agree with Willrich’s one-size-fits all prescription then, and I don’t today. For example, it would be scandalous for a Washington Post reporter covering the auto industry to accept money from General Motors. But should the same author be barred from accepting a speaker’s fee from the Detroit Chamber of Commerce to discuss a book he’s written about the rollover dangers posed by SUVs if some of the chamber’s money comes from automaker coffers? At some point the over-policing of appearances of conflict of interest becomes farce.
Hard-core press ethicists maintain that speaking fees—and other sources of outside earned income—corrupt journalists in two ways: They encourage them to write flattering things about their patrons or, like an insurance policy, they buy their silence.
But the paying groups don’t think they’re buying the speaker, they think they’re buying amusement or edification. They want somebody well-known to do the talking so they can brag about it later, and they don’t mind spending big bucks. Recently, a top speaker’s agent told the Conference Board’s Across the Board magazine that the fees paid to speakers sound exorbitant, but when you factor in the “cumulative value” of a roomful of senior executives, “a $50,000 speaker’s fee is a modest part of an event’s cost.”
I don’t see how I can refute the argument that speaking fees buy the future silence of journalists. No matter how industrious, every journalist will leave a hundred million topics untouched before he dies. How does one determine which topics the writer abandoned because he received a speaker’s fee, and which ones he abandoned because he wasn’t interested? If it were really that easy to purchase the silence of writers, I’d gladly dip into personal savings to throttle a few.
I hope I haven’t given the impression that Remnick and I agree about press ethics: He’s a hawk on the subject while I’m a dove. He agonizes over whether the rules that apply to a full-time staff writer should also apply to a once-a year-contributor. If I were editor of The New Yorker, I would not.
Where Remnick and I agree, I think, is that the best place to judge journalists is on the printed page. It’s fine with me if you want to track reporters’ extracurricular paydays. Now and again, I’m certain that you’ll uncover a louse or even a family of lice! But unless you can tie a reporter’s financial interests or personal relationships to unsound journalism, I’m not your cop. Send your anonymous e-mails elsewhere.
But you, David Remnick, send me your résumé. I’m serious about hiring you! The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)