Today I sent the following email to the New York Times Public Editor's office:
In September 2014, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote: "The Times could do a lot more to alert readers about conflicts of interests of sources used by the paper."
Similarly, The Times could and should do much more to alert readers to the conflict of interest of its own writer, David Brooks.
In the Hebrew edition of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz (but not, it seems, in the English language edition), it came out that the son of New York Times columnist David Brooks, who sometimes writes about Israel-Palestine, has been serving in the Israeli military.
Yet, to date the New York Times has neither revealed this conflict of interest to the public nor taken any disciplinary action regarding Mr. Brooks' violation of the Times' ethics requirements.
The Times' 1999 "Guidelines on Our Integrity"state:
"At a time of growing and even justified public suspicion about the impartiality, accuracy and integrity of some journalists and some journalism, it is imperative that The Times and its staff maintain the highest possible standards to insure that we do nothing that might erode readers’ faith and confidence in our news columns. This means that staff members should be vigilant in avoiding any activity that might pose an actual or apparent conflict of interest and thus threaten the newspaper’s ethical standing."
The Times' statement of principles, "Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments" includes the following statements:
"The goal of The New York Times is to cover the news as impartially as possible… and to be seen to be doing so. The reputation of The Times rests upon such perceptions…"
"In keeping with its solemn responsibilities under the First Amendment, The Times strives to maintain the highest standards of journalistic ethics."
"Conflicts of interest, real or apparent, may come up in many areas……. professional activities of… family… can create conflicts or the appearance of conflicts."
"The Times believes beyond question that its staff shares the values these guidelines are intended to protect;"
"The Times views any deliberate violation of these guidelines as a serious offense that may lead to disciplinary action, potentially including dismissal…"
"…a daughter in a high profile job on Wall Street might produce the appearance of conflict for a business reporter or editor."
"Any staff member who sees a potential for conflict… in the activities of… relatives must discuss the situation with his or her supervising editor and the standards editor or the deputy editorial page editor."
The ethics handbook also states: "In all cases The Times depends on staff members to disclose potential problems in a timely fashion so that we can work together to prevent embarrassment for staff members and The Times."
Did Mr. Brooks do so?
The Times' handbook also says:
"In some cases, disclosure is enough. But if The Times considers the problem serious, the staff member may have to withdraw from certain coverage. Sometimes an assignment may have to be modified or a beat changed. In a few instances, a staff member may have to move to a different department – from business and financial news, say, to the culture desk – to avoid the appearance of conflict."
Will The Times now take actions regarding David Brooks in line with its own ethics requirements?
Will it publicly and consistently disclose that Mr. Brooks' son is serving in the Israeli military and was doing so while he was commenting on Israel without disclosing this fact to readers?
Will the Times discipline Mr. Brooks for his violation of the newspaper's ethical requirements?
If he is to continue his employment at The Times, will the Times prohibit him from commenting on subjects in which Israel is involved?
Incidentally, a number of other journalistic codes of ethics contain similar requirements.
The "Statement of Principles" of the American Society of Newspaper Editors says: "Journalists must avoid... any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict."
NPR's code of ethics states: "All NPR journalists... must tell our supervisors in advance about potential conflicts of interest....... This includes situations in which a... family member... is an active participant in a subject area that you cover."
The Los Angeles Times ethics code states:
"Activities of family members may create conflicts of interest...... the paper may restrict a staff member’s assignment based on the activities of a family member or loved one. Staff members are responsible for informing a supervisor whenever a companion’s or close relative’s activities, investments or affiliations could create a conflict."
Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has now posted the following commentary (it appears that this was being posted at the same time that I was posting my own blog entry above). Below is this piece, with my comments in brackets.