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When do gifts to journalists turn into a conflict of interest? When a New York Times writer gets his computer repaired.

Wednesday, Mar 15 2006
I was working on my laptop last week when it suddenly appeared: the dreaded spinning pinwheel of death. It's a multicolored rotating ball that signifies one's Apple computer has momentarily frozen. The pinwheel spun, and spun, and spun. It turned out my hard drive had crashed. My tech friend Ted examined it and said that my five years' worth of computer files might be lost unless I took the drive to a place called DriveSavers in Novato, which specializes in rescuing data from hard drives that have stopped working.

I didn't end up recovering my data.

But I did retrieve some fascinating information thanks to my conversation with a DriveSavers sales rep, who tipped me off to a story involving the age-old journalistic quandary of swag -- the free goodies and services companies incessantly press upon journalists in hopes of getting positive press.

DriveSavers frequently provides services to people involved in fields such as movie and music production, whose lost files can be worth fortunes. And the standard DriveSavers fee for a successful data-recovery operation is $2,700, far too rich for my blood.

When I told the DriveSavers sales representative that my drive contained mostly text files because I was a journalist, the sales rep said that a CBS journalist had recently been "comped" free disk-retrieval service as part of a story he'd done on the company, and that I might want to write a story about DriveSavers, too. I got a story all right, but not the one DriveSavers had in mind. It turned out the sales representative was referring to a situation in which New York Times columnist David Pogue, who is also a contributor to CBS News and National Public Radio, received $2,000 in free personal-data-recovery services from DriveSavers in connection with pieces Pogue did for all three news organizations. Pogue wrote the stories after his own drive crashed, entombing his voice message and e-mail files.

"I think what I wrote in the column puts it best: 'This unfortunate event was, perhaps, my opportunity to review a service I'd always wondered about,'" Pogue told me, by way of explanation of his free-service arrangement.

John Christopher of DriveSavers says the company waived the fee not as payment for positive publicity, but as a "professional courtesy" to Pogue.

In my view, that's a pretty significant violation of journalism's ethical conventions, ones I would have expected to have been in force at the gold standards of American print, television, and radio journalism. How is a reader, or viewer, or listener, to know a journalist's analysis is on the up and up if a writer receives expensive goodies from a story subject?

The case of Pogue, and the DriveSavers pieces he did for the New York Times, CBS News, and NPR, seems to suggest that for all the ballyhoo these days about journalistic ethics, standards, and practices, overseers at the zenith of the U.S. news business allowed at least one journalist and his editors to believe those standards don't apply to them.

In terms of publicity value, DriveSavers made out very well with Pogue.

"DriveSavers is a professional data-recovery company," Pogue wrote in one of three Times electronic columns about the company. "You send them your mangled drive. They take it into a clean room, where space-suited technicians replace the damaged parts from a huge inventory of components, get the things spinning again, and painstakingly re-create the data on your dead drive, sector by sector. They send the recovered files back to you on CD's, DVD's or over the Internet."

Pogue, for his part, told me that in accepting a $2,000 gift from DriveSavers, he believed he was following common industry practice.

"Every reviewer of services, of any kind -- theater, music, restaurants, travel -- gets free services for review purposes," he wrote me via e-mail. "None of this is disclosed, although we could argue about whether it should be."

That would be astonishing if true. It's not.

Mr. Pogue's $2,000 in swag violates the official policies of most serious news organizations. This is a distinction of magnitude, not kind: At SF Weekly we receive piles of unsolicited free books and CDs in the mail. A few get reviewed. Most are given away or thrown out. Our reviewers get into theater and music shows for free. The paper does not have a written policy regarding swag. New York Times theater reviewers likewise are admitted to performances free. But at SF Weekly and other news organizations, it's generally understood that one doesn't accept gifts of significant value from story sources, particularly if the freebies represent a personal benefit to the journalist.

More to the point, Pogue's swag transaction runs specifically counter to the standards of the news organizations that featured Pogue's DriveSavers pieces.

The Gray Lady is famous for her no-freebies policy (theater tickets for reviewers excluded).

"New York Times rules require travel writers, or freelancers for our travel section and magazines, to pay for everything they do and bar writers who have ever accepted freebies from writing for us. Our restaurant critics always pay for their meals," Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty told me. "The answer to your question -- do New York Times travel writers get free hotels, meals, cruises, theater tickets, music, as Pogue suggests -- is no."

In the second of three Times pieces he wrote about DriveSavers, Pogue included this disclaimer: "Had I been a paying customer and not a reviewer, I would have been charged about $2,000."

After I inquired about the matter, the Times added a disclaimer of its own to the bottom of Pogue's Web-based column.

Pogue "misconstrued the terms under which The Times accepts free use of goods or services for review," the disclaimer says. "The policy allows temporary loans from vendors or manufacturers of equipment or materials for review, and they must be returned after testing."

McNulty said Pogue was not subject to the strict no-freebies policy applied to travel writers. Therefore he would not be barred from continuing to write his technology column on a contract basis. McNulty said the Times planned to cut a check to DriveSavers to cover the cost of the company's service to Pogue.

NPR keeps a similar no-swag rule.

"NPR's policy is that we don't take freebies to do stories," says Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman for NPR, which ran a September 2005 DriveSavers segment by Pogue titled "Recovering From a Hard-Drive Disaster." "I wish [Pogue] had informed NPR that he had this arrangement with this company. It would be up to management to make that decision. But I think the proper thing would be to turn down the story. How could we guarantee he was doing a fair job of determining whether this company was valuable or not?"

The Tiffany Network likewise bans valuable gifts from sources.

"We do not accept gifts to defray costs or allow any appearance of conflict," says CBS spokeswoman Sandra Genelius. "It's simple: It's not acceptable. So we're taking the issue up with Mr. Pogue."

In response to my inquiry last Friday, CBS News Sunday Morning host Charles Osgood described Pogue's swag deal near the end of the show's March 12 edition.

"To make a long story short, David apologizes, and so do we," Osgood said.

For all these strong official policies about ethics, Pogue's case suggests journalism's standard-bearers employ people blithe to one of the simplest, most obvious of journalistic standards -- the one that says don't take valuable, free stuff from people you're writing about.

According to Times spokeswoman McNulty, Pogue's DriveSavers freebie slipped through because of an ethical misunderstanding by Pogue and his editors.

"In preparing David Pogue's columns about DriveSavers, which appeared in an e-mail column and on the New York Times on the Web, the columnist and his editors misconstrued the terms under which the Times accepts goods or services for review," McNulty says. "That policy provides for temporary loans from vendors of equipment or materials to be reviewed, and their return after testing. In the case of a service like this, the Times should have paid the vendor. The Times has contacted DriveSavers to arrange payment."

That's one hell of a misunderstanding.

By this accounting, not only Pogue, but also several New York Times editors, interpreted the act of suffering a hard-drive crash, then getting a $2,000 repair job for free and writing a glowing article about the company, as occupying the same ethical ballpark as the far less compromising act of reviewing a loaner iPod and mailing it back to Apple.

This is startling given the public ethical nitpicking going on at the Times these days. On Feb. 26, Times Public Editor Byron Calame devoted 1,100 words to fretting about whether near-worthless employee discounts that some companies offer New York Times workers have somehow created a conflict of interest in cases where the paper covered those companies. All the while, if I understand McNulty correctly, a Times contributor and his editors believed it was OK to accept thousands of dollars' worth of free services from a story subject.

With such a vast gray area existing in the minds of Times editors, it raises some questions: Have writers and editors in the Times real estate section until now labored under the impression that they could solve their own home termite infestations gratis by writing glowing pest-exterminator reviews? What about the Automobiles section? I wonder how often editors there get story pitches about car repair shops.

The Tiffany Network, of Good Night, and Good Luck fame, supposed standard-bearer of TV journalistic ethics, has long been home to a massive tome titled the "CBS News Standards and Practices," known inside the company as the "Blue Book," which has served as a strict guide to company ethics for decades.

Former CBS newsman Marvin Kalb, lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center, writes and lectures on ethics in journalism. I asked him about Pogue and the old CBS News.

"If his computer was busted, he should have paid to get it fixed," Kalb told me. Pogue's "explanation leaves the impression he avoided payment by doing the story on how terrific the company was. But I hasten to add, my ethical standards are somewhat antique and probably not appropriate for today's more expansive marketplace."

If that's so, it's too bad. Journalistic standards aren't just insider nitpicking. They're supposed to give readers the impression that news pages display reporters' uncompromised stab at finding out and writing the truth.

Yet Pogue seems to genuinely believe that his arrangement with DriveSavers was standard practice.

"It was a review, not a 'comp deal,'" Pogue insisted, when I told him that a DriveSavers sales representative had informed me that the company had "comped" him free service.

And Lydia Chavez, who teaches ethics at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, said she thought Pogue had tried to do the right thing by telling his editors about his arrangement with DriveSavers. "He's obviously thorough and conscientious," said Chavez, a former New York Times reporter, after I showed her Pogue's explanation. "David makes it pretty clear that the Times policy on this is that he can review any service for free. It does, however, get dicey when he actually needs that service and can personally gain from it."

Dicey indeed. But thorough and conscientious? How could Times writers, both current and past, be unaware of the paper's anti-swag policy?

"I think the question is not whether they have rules, but rather whether the rules are being enforced," NPR's Dvorkin says.

Dvorkin may have got that about right.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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