Regular Readers of The New York Times will be rushing to newsstands this weekend for yet another possible installment in a series by Ombudsman Clark Hoyt's that may as well be called "When It Comes To Enforcing Ethical Guidelines, We're Soup Nazis."
On Dec. 12, Hoyt dedicated his Sunday column to scolding two Times writers. One, a copy editor, wrote a squib about how lame Jet Blue's service was, while having personally experienced Jet Blue's lame service -- a conflict of interest, by Hoyt's reckoning. Another, a freelancer, wrote one sentence recommending a burger joint co-owned by her boyfriend.
On Jan. 2, Hoyt wrote about how the Times had fired three other freelancers for petty conflicts of interest. In one case, a professor had taken an airplane ride paid for by a company she'd written about.
On Jan. 9, Hoyt published letters from people complaining the Times was being unreasonably harsh, and a response from Bill Keller telling them, essentially, to get a life. "The Times has established some of the strictest guidelines in the business to protect the independence and integrity of our news report," Keller wrote. "And if we let freelancers take freebies from people they write about, we would compromise the integrity that people demand of The Times.
On Jan. 16, Hoyt explained that The Times published five special editors' notes during the previous two months apologizing to readers for stories that had not revealed apparent conflicts of interests suffered by story sources, who stood to profit from statements published in the times.
We're hoping Hoyt ends his series with a bang by writing about the Big Daddy of all Times conflicts of interest generators: tech columnist David Pogue. Unlike the low-status conflict-of-interest-generators described in Hoyt's previous columns, the famous Pogue seems not to have suffered from the Times ethics Soup Nazis' scorn.
We've written a note to Pogue, incidentally, and are anxious to receive and publish his response.
Following Hoyt's Jan. 2 column, in which he bragged about how the paper had exercised superior ethics by canning a handful of lowly freelancers, we wrote him the following note:
Dear Mr. Hoyt,
(We're) preparing an item for our news blog "The Snitch" relating to your January
2 column, "Times Standards, Staffers or Not."
(We're) writing to ask about the apparent difference between the situation you
described and incidents in 2006, when I wrote about David Pogue and
columns he'd done about the company Drivesavers.
At that time, Pogue had accepted $2000 in free hard drive-repair services
and then wrote about the company.
Pogue had also done pieces on Drivesavers for NPR and CBS.
CBS's Charles Osgood issued an on-air apology for Pogue's actions.
NPR's ombudusman dedicated a column to the situation.
The Times' response seemed less dramatic: it published a brief addendum to
Pogue's online column, available in the Times archives.
Pogue, meanwhile, was publicly strident in asserting he'd done nothing
wrong. He shared with me via e-mail his unsubstantiated belief that other
Times reviewers accepted freebies.
Additionally, he phoned in to a CNET podcast to deliver a similar message,
insisting that Times policies requiring reviewers to pay for things they
review had "no relevance" to his case, and that "The Times has no policy
on services. I can send you copies of the ethical guidelines, and there's
absolutely no reference to what to do about reviewing services. This has
now been deemed an oversight."
Obviously, Pogue was not fired.
It's easy to speculate as to why Pogue might have received better
treatment than the freelancers you describe in your column. He's a pretty
big deal, after all. I'm writing you to ask the real reason.
I wasn't the public editor of The Times in 2006, and the current standards
editor was not in that role at the time, having last year replaced an
editor who retired. I can't immediately answer your question, but I'll
endeavor to find out.
Not hearing from Hoyt, we sent him another note two weeks later. Still nothing.
We're anxiously waiting to receive and publish Hoyt's reply because he actually did address a branch of Pogue's conflict of interest empire on Sept. 5, 2009 in a column titled "He Works for The Times, Too." Pogue originated the "Missing Manual" series of tech self-help books. He'd recently written a glowing review of Apple's new operating system, urging readers to pay $30 to upgrade from their existing operating system to a new one. At the same time, he was writing a Missing Manual for Apple's Snow Leopard users. Hoyt said that, in the future, Pogue's columns would contain an ethics statement. Our guess is that the canned lowlier columnists would have liked to get off with an ethics statement, too.
Pogue, when questioned by Hoyt for the ombudsman column responded:
Conflict in his case was "kind of an imaginative cause and effect. I can't imagine someone saying: 'This is a good product. I'll buy the reviewer's book.' "
Pogue and Hoyt may have missed a salient point, however. The way product-linked tech guides often work is that writers work closely with manufacturers, in some cases to get access to pre-release versions of software products, so that the manual can be published soon after a product release. In situations such as this, a good relationship with the software manufacturer is crucial to the manual manufacturer's profits.
We're not privvy to details about Pogue's dealings with Apple. But Mac OS X Snow Leopard was released on August 27, 2009, and six weeks later Pogue's publisher released Mac OX X Snow Leopard: The Missing Manual. We're hoping Pogue will respond to our query and answer our questions about this.
Notwithstanding the Snow Leopard dustup, the tech columnist seemed to continue his seeming appearance-of-conflict-raising ways soon after the Times ombudsman's pen had dried. In a Dec. 2 Times column "Not Yet the Season for a Nook," Pogue wrote a follow up to a series of pieces he'd done heaping lavish praise on Amazon's Kindle electronic book reader, while bashing Barnes & Noble's efforts to match its competitor.
Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader is "slower than an anesthetized slug in winter" Pogue wrote in an unusually stinging column.
The conflict of interest problem here is that Pogue was weighing in on one side of a commercial battle between two companies he happens to have significant business relationships with. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble are major retailers of his Missing Manual books.
Hoyt, on the subject of Pogue's apparent Missing Manual conflicts wrote:
"It is no intended knock on Pogue's integrity -- he has panned Apple products and praised those of competitors -- to point out that the review put him in the kind of conflict-of-interest situation that The Times regularly calls others to account for."
In the same spirit, we should note we have no reason to believe that Pogue has reinforced his bargaining position with respect to two major retailers of his books by dint of reviews of those companies' products. And we can't simply assume that Pogue's work writing insiders guides to software is made easier and more profitable thanks to glowing reviews of software makers' wares."
This a more nuanced view than the one Hoyt expressed in his Jan. 2 column discussing the fate of three freelancers -- whose status and readership happen to be less than Pogue's --and who were fired for perceived conflicts of interest.
In that column, Hoyt provided balance to opinions supporting the Times purportedly strict ethical policies by citing former Times freelance columnist Virginia Postrel, who said it was false to assume that a columnist might be under undue influence if she, say, took an airline flight paid for by a company, and then wrote about that same company.
After quoting Postrel, Hoyt shot her down.
"Times editors reject such arguments because, to them, the most important consideration is that everything in the newspaper, no matter who produces it, must be free of even the smallest hint of undue influence," wrote Hoyt, whose column then cited a Times editor as saying: "I think it is important for us to be clear and strict about our rules so readers have reason to trust our credibility."
"I come from the same place," Hoyt then wrote.
The Snitch wonders: Does this standard also apply to a celebrity contributor -- as opposed to a dispensable freelancer -- when his writing intersects with personal business interests?