Hey, Wait A Minute

Ethical Mayday!

The New York Times’ cruises for rich people have tripped the alarms of journalism’s scolds. That’s ridiculous.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock,  Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images, Michael Loccisano/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
Would you pay to vacation with Tom Friedman, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and Nicholas Kristof—or pay for them to stay on land?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock,  Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images, Michael Loccisano/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

The Washington Post published a piece earlier this week raising questions about the New York Times’ latest desperation attempt to raise a few pennies: around-the-world cruises with New York Times reporters and columnists. Newspapers and magazines have done things like this before, and more and more of them are getting into the cruise business now. But the Times pushes the envelope in terms of length and grandiosity. The list of Times people who—for just $135,000—you can corner on a boat, with no way for them to escape, includes the publisher himself, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Is this the limit or what? Actually, the Times misses a bet here. There is money to be made by offering cruises and guaranteeing that certain Times writers will not be on them. I name no names, but there are people who would find 10 days floating down the Danube a lot more restful if they come with an assurance that Nicholas Kristof won’t be aboard.

As the Post handsomely concedes, the whole project brings back golden memories of an ethics fuss back in 2008—when the Post itself put dinners at the publisher’s house up for sale with Post reporters and other Washington luminaries as bait. This week’s Post article quotes an ethics cop from the Society of Professional Journalists who says about the Times cruises, “[I]t looks like a bunch of journalists flying off to far corners of the world with incredibly wealthy people.” He added, “Of course, it looks like that, because that’s what it is.” He never says, or the Post’s Paul Farhi never explains, what is wrong with incredibly wealthy people amusing themselves in this way. Like most stories about journalistic ethics, this one wanders off into a minefield of troublesome distinctions: between a dinner with the publisher and a trip with reporters, between a trip on a boat and a trip on an airplane, and so on.

But these are not the only methods newspapers have developed for cashing in on their influence. Did you know, for example, that since shortly after Gutenberg, newspapers have sold actual space in their pages in which the buyer can say whatever he or she wishes? This practice is called advertising. And unlike these cruises that excite and alarm the ethics cops, it goes to the heart of a newspaper’s mission, which is to fill up empty pages with reasonably accurate narratives, if possible implicating President Trump.

No doubt there are people at the Society of Professional Journalists who think it is corrupt, or potentially corrupt, or creates an appearance of corruption for newspapers to sell advertising, but in the real world this practice is almost universally accepted. And not as a necessary evil, but as a positively good thing. In fact there are those—including me, and I bet including the ethicists over at the Society of Professional Journalists—who think that people’s right to advertise is protected by the First Amendment. New York Times v. Sullivan, the great Supreme Court case extending protection from libel lawsuits to newspapers, was about an advertisement, not a news story or opinion piece.

There is only one way to understand the issues at stake here, and that is to sign up for a “Cruise to Ethics.” Customers (I mean students) will spend 17 days at sea with newspaper ombudsmen and deans of journalism schools. Our special guests will be authentic lobbyists from leading American and foreign corporations, who will conduct unique bribery and flattery sessions that will bring the absence of journalistic ethics alive in real-life made-up situations. You will be approached at least once during your cruise by a genuine lobbyist who will propose getting together for lunch, and another who will offer you bags of (fake) cash. You will learn how to create “fake news” from a genuine Russian agent. Over lunch one day in the hills above CIA headquarters, an authentic CIA retiree will explain why interfering in other people’s elections is OK when we do it but reprehensible when other people do it.

All for just $140,000—or $150,000 without Tom Friedman.