The Miami Herald enters quagmire of journalistic ethics
By Michael Lewis
Journalistic ethics used to be clear, we thought.
The reporter who was taking payoffs to write glowingly about Maryland officials was bad. His son, writing for our competitive daily on the same beat, took no payoffs, so he was OK.
But was it so simple? After all, father and son wrote almost the same things about the same people from shared notes. Where was the line? The answer is: It was never so simple after all.
The question of journalistic conflicts of interest resurfaced last week when the Miami Herald broke the story that 10 journalists had been paid to appear on government radio and television stations. The Herald's sister el Nuevo Herald fired its reporters who were named.
Incredibly, though the reporters had been on the shows for years and everyone knew it — the Herald itself had earlier written that a freelancer cut loose was paid and the payments were always public record — Herald managers said they had no idea the reporters got money. Presumably, they thought their people had worked years for free for other media.
Was the unofficial policy don't ask, don't tell?
Were the reporters fired because they violated company policy or because the Castro government of Cuba had recently raised the issue of Herald journalists taking US government pay?
And how bad is it to appear on publicly funded media? Is it unethical to work with organizations that are publicly funded? Is it just bad to be compensated but OK to do the same thing for free? Or is government evil in itself?
Or could the offense be that Radio and TV Marti, the media in question, are clearly opposed to the Castro regime?
The potential for conflicts of interest in reporting is huge. Reputable news organizations make certain that reporters and editors avoid conflicts whenever possible. It's the only way to maintain credibility.
Several Miami Today reporters over the years have collaborated on books, told their editors up front and agreed not to cover their collaborators or their interests in the future. That, we would expect, would be common practice.
Similarly, our reporters have had to avoid covering the business doings of spouses and their companies. Of course, they can't report on concerns in which they may hold investments. The potential for conflict is clear.
But murky areas abound. How does a reporter cover an alma mater? A former employer? An old friend? And where do you draw the line on how close is too close?
Some newspapers used to ask reporters to shun any community ties to avoid potential conflicts. But they'd also have little local knowledge or empathy, which made them poor but impartial reporters. Miami Today asks every staff member to do something in the community, though not in areas they cover. Is that shifting times or shifting ethics?
Let's examine other situations.
Staff members of local newspapers appear on television stations owned by corporations that are covered in the press. If the reporters get paid, how does that differ from the Herald's big scoop? It's pay by an entity that might be in a reporter's stories next month. Or is a corporation holier than government?
Next case: Staff members of newspapers, including Miami Today, appear on public radio and television. Public radio and television receive federal funding. Is this a conflict?
Another case: The Miami Herald has a partnership with the local radio station run by the school board. The Herald provides newscasts using Herald anchors who put on the air Herald reporters. The Herald and the schools share sponsorship revenues. The Herald also covers and editorializes on the public schools. The school system is government — massive government. Is this OK because the money goes to the Herald, which then pays the reporters but wouldn't be OK if government paid the reporters directly?
Or is it the case here that purity is required of reporters but not their employers?
Perhaps the difference between this and the Marti reporting is that this reporting is part of the employee's job description and the Marti appearances were without corporate sanction. That's a violation of internal rules but hardly a question of ethics. If so, why involve the names of persons from other media who had their companies' permission to appear for pay? The only thing they may have done wrong is to work for media with policies that don't match the Herald's.
And how about the Herald's spokesman in this case?
"Our managers had no knowledge of the payments at all," the St. Petersburg Times quotes "Robert Beatty, the Herald's general counsel."
The editor of el Nuevo Herald learned of the paid appearances only Thursday, the New York Times quotes "Robert Beatty, vice president for public affairs at the Miami Herald Media Company."
So they got to the lawyer and the PR man. Pity nobody asked a Herald editorial-board member to comment on the journalistic propriety of it all. They could have gone to a key member, Robert Beatty.
The Herald puts Mr. Beatty, an estimable individual, in the impossible position of making editorial-page decisions, legal decisions and PR decisions all at the same time. Talk about conflicts of interest!
Maybe the Herald would care to write about another clear conflict. While parent McClatchy Co. is trying to sell the land around the Herald for $190 million to a developer, the Herald waited until two weeks after Miami Today had reported it to note that the developer was before a city agency seeking a $200 million subsidy to close the deal. Pity the reporter on that beat.
On the other hand, maybe that's OK because the money from government would go directly to the developer and only indirectly to the newspaper's owner. Or maybe not.
Ethics in journalism is tough, isn't it?