A TRUE ethics policy

“Ride hard, shoot straight and speak the shining truth.”

Why would I post a one-line, nine-word bromide that is open to a wide range of interpretation and claim it as my blog’s ethics policy?

Because it contains three elements missing in the long-winded, self-serving, so-called ethics policies put out by many major and minor American newspapers to impose “ethical” standards on their editorial employees.

First, my policy is short.

Second, it is actually possible to parse sense from it.

And third, it contains a word missing from its supposedly more sophisticated brethren. More about that word later.But now, time for a warning: I have a pony in this race. Six months before I took a buyout from the Detroit Free Press, I was disciplined for behavior that managers, long after the fact, decided was “unethical”. In fact, they agreed that what I did was not unethical at the time I did it, but after they found out about the horrible act I had committed three years previous, they tinkered with the language of their “ethics” policy to make it, ex post facto, a breach of their new re-jiggered and ever plastic guidelines. In other words, don’t do it again. If that seems convoluted, don’t blame me. Having amended the meaning of “ethics,” managers then asked me if I would ever do what I had done three years before — again. What they failed to tell me was that they had already decided that if I answered “Yes,” they planned to punish me, possibly even fire me. Ain’t they sweet?In the next days, weeks and months, I’ll be exploring “ethics” issues on joelontheroad.com, and I’ll be discussing the ramifications of newspaper “ethics” and what this little adventure in pseudo-philosophy has meant to me. Example: Anyone who thinks this episode towards the end of my 30-career in journalism didn’t play a significant part in my decision to retire from the Free Press should read a book about the business practices of Gannett, the corporation that owns the Free Press. It’s called “The Chain Gang,” by Richard McCord.My supposed sin? As a citizen of the United States of America, I participated in the political process in fall 2004 by contributing $500 to the Michigan Democratic party.Horrible, horrible me. But as I say, at the time I did it, donations didn’t violate either the Knight-Ridder or Gannett ethics policies. And, while I continued at the Free Press, I didn’t donate money to political parties. Not so our bosses. At least one of our managers, AFTER he’d re-tooled the ethics policy and his minions had played their little head games with me, actually donated money to a political organization — $175 to the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee. Yesiree, right there on the Michigan Secretary of State website for anyone with a computer to take a gander at. The Eliot Spitzer Moment for Shameless Hypocrisy.But back to my ethics policy which, following industry standards, is subject to change at my whim. I really think my ethics policy du jour has it all over those fatuous policies put out by the big name newspapers.Take a look at the creme de la creme, which is to say the ethics policy of our nation’s elite newspaper, The New York Times. The Times was so proud of its 54-page tome on newsroom social control that it saw fit to attach an index.An index! This thing must be really important. Hmmm. Gosh, I don’t see any index entries for “Newspaper Guild,” or “union,” or “collective bargaining agreement” or “contract.” Guess this hyped-up, obese document isn’t part of the New York Times contract with the New York local of The Newspaper Guild. Wonder how meaningful it really is.I haven’t seen another American newspaper ethics policy that reached quite the Times’ height of fatuous self-importance and pomposity, but they all have these elements in common: Florid, grandiose but murky verbiage in describing goals or standards impossible to meet. At least Eliot Spitzer was a one-trick — or should I say, SAME trick — horse. The Times sows hypocrisy far and wide.

Okay, I’ll stop kicking the Times around. For a minute or two. Here’s one of my favorite examples of a double standard, found in the Dec. 13, 1984 edition of the Detroit Free Press’ “Ethics Guidelines.” It says: “No staff member should write about, report on, photograph or make a news judgment about any individual related to him or her by blood or marriage or with whom the staff member has a close personal relationship.”

That ban existed for years in the Free Press’ Ethical Guidelines, then disappeared without explanation. Here’s what I bet happened: Someone in management with the power to re-assemble these elastic ethics policies belatedly figured out that the prohibition on writing about family members was being violated with impunity every day of the week by then columnists Jim Fitzgerald, Susan Watson, Bob Talbert and others. Of course, lowly reporters like me had to abide by it or face recrimination, humiliation and even termination from editors. But the columnists were and are the paper’s stars, paid far better than other writers to ruminate on anything that bestirred them, which often was a spouse, a kid or a grandchild. In direct violation of the paper’s behavioral edicts.That’s the problem with so-called “ethical guidelines” or “ethical policies” — their lofty, pompous proscriptions too often collide with workplace reality. Everyone in the newsroom knew that those columnists were highly prized for their ability to spin homey yarns about pals or hubbies into down to earth essays that persuaded people to trade their spare change for the newspaper. Why, people would even swap good money to buy books that collected these family-oriented columns. Meanwhile, a rule that insiders know is being broken, if they think about it, is unknown to readers. How often do you see a newspaper’s ethics policy in print where its readers can easily find it and compare what they’re reading to the paper’s ethical cant du jour? The hypocrisy goes unrecognized by the public and therefore it has no importance to newsroom managers who write the regs.

Here’s another “ethic” I find entertaining, because it has survived and lives on in current iterations of many newsroom ethics policies. I quote from the 1984 Free Press document: “A staff member may not enter into a business relationship with a news source.”There was a time at the Detroit Free Press when a certain columnist had a book deal as co-author with a certain famous but now-dead football coach whom he continued to use as a news source. It was okay by management, despite the seemingly emphatic prohibition, that Mitch had this deal with Bo.

Really, the language is pretty vague. What does it mean to say “business relationship”? If I buy a book from a bookstore, then write a story about the store manager, was the purchase a “business relationship” that violated the policy? If I pay for lunch at a restaurant, then write a review of that eatery, am I in trouble?

Don’t ask me. I don’t write the rules.We know who writes them. Newspaper owners, or their managers.

I’m told (by a lawyeer from Gannett, wouldn’t you know) that the New York Times’ ethics book is the “gold standard” of ethics policies. Wow. That is really impressive. It stands to reason. They are the classiest newspaper in the country. They must have the smartest writers, deepest thinkers, so it’s natural to turn to them as the wisest of the wise.

On page 19 of their hefty book, I find the Times’ rules for staffers regarding “Voting, Campaigns and Public Issues.”

I’ll be writing in depth about this section later, but right now I’m interested in the opening line: “Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics.”

What a mouthful that is.

At risk of being branded a smart-ass, I’d like to know — can somebody explain to me? — what the phrase “playing fields of politics” means?

I picture an immense soccer field with goal posts all along the sides. Lots of soccer fields. No, wait a minute. They’re football fields. No, baseball fields. See what I mean? What the hell DOES it mean?

It is my understanding — correct me if I’m wrong — that Times reporters travel with political candidates and government officials either on campaigns or as part of the officials’ governmental duties. It is my understanding that reporters attend press conferences called by officials and candidates for political office. Am I wrong to believe that reporters sometimes hold private conversations with politicians and government officials, say over lunch, and that they sometimes shoot the bull about politics in off-the-record contacts and may even discuss the ins and outs of political maneuvering with people who have a political leaning of one kind or another? And that these unpublicized conversations between journalists and politicos from time to time affect the course of political history?

Hmmm: Could these scenes be construed as “the playing fields of politics”?I’m sitting in the dining room of my home writing this, having perused the front page of today’s (Jan. 20, 2008) New York Times. Oh my, here’s a headline, “VOTE OF WOMEN PROPELS CLINTON IN NEVADA CAUCUS, followed by a deck, “OBAMA IS STRONG 2ND” and a sub-deck, “G.O.P.’s Primary Goes Down to the Wire in South Carolina.” The article was co-written, we are told through a by-line, by JEFF ZELENY and JENNIFER STEINHAUER.Where did Mr. Zeleny and Ms. Steinhauer learn about these elections if it was not on the “playing fields of politics”?

Gosh. I wonder if these two reporters will be cited for ethical lapses if it turns out that they in fact conducted some or all of their reporting on “the playing fields of politics”?

Don’t ask me. I don’t make the rules.Isn’t it just possible that these very articles might have some impact on the behavior of the very politicians they cover? Might not politicians choose to do one thing and not another based on conversations with reporters or based on their reading of the reporters’ articles? How about the Times’ articles about National Security Agency wiretapping? Didn’t those articles affect government behavior? It seems like the very publication of articles takes place on one or more of those “playing fields,” doesn’t it?

I’m not even going to get into the question of why the Times’ ethics gurus chose that term, “playing fields of politics.” Were they perhaps sports writers or sports editors? It’s a pretty lame metaphor, made more so by its choice of athletic lingo. It’s a cinch they aren’t philosophers.I’d like to know this: Why do newspapers write these hyperbolic policies if they can be construed and re-construed to the point they’re meaningless?In my opinion, the people who run newspapers see these rules as clubs they can use to beat on reporters when no other weapon is handy and whenever it suits them. Control. Keep those lackies in hand. That’s not what the managers say, of course. I recently heard a top newspaper editor explain what these policies are meant to do: Preserve the paper’s credibility. You see, in this manager’s view, readers lose confidence in the paper as a believable source of news if they find out their favorite writers have conflicts of interest.

Problem: All those exceptions. The sports writer with the book deal, columnists writing about family members. Another problem: Those “conflicts” were obvious to readers, who never knew they were “ethics” conflicts because they were never told about the policy. If they had known, would they have cared? Who knows? Who cares? Columnists provide entertainment. The whole paper can’t be murder and mayhem or politics and courtroom folderol. Managers know it. They give those writers great latitude, freedom to break the rules because it sells papers.

Did readers give a rip, really?

According to the editor, though, if the public realizes there’s a conflict, they will stop buying the paper. That would hurt the paper’s bottom line.

Did it hurt the paper’s bottom line to let writers wax on about their families or write about sources they had deals with? Not if readers didn’t know. They wouldn’t have cared, anyway. They continued to buy papers, maybe bought even more papers, thanks to the wit and homeyness of the columns.

But we then hear it’s not even reality that matters. It is perception. If people PERCEIVE a conflict, they may stop buying. That would be bad. But all those years when columnists wrote about family members and didn’t get caught, that was okay. There was no PERCEPTION of a conflict. So people kept buying papers and there was no economic harm to the publishers.So what ethics really are about is not credibility at all. What “ethics” are about is selling newspapers. Ethics equals money.

Why is this important to me? I love newspapers. I see them dying. No, I see them killing themselves. I see them doing dumb things they got away with when they were the only show in town. But now, with competition from the Internet, they are like deer in a forest of klieg lights. Either they’re paralyzed with fear or simply lack the basic intelligence they need to survive. This is about the future of newspapers.

It’s worth looking again at those highly-paid columnists who write to a different standard from other staffers. Managers assume that readers buy more papers because they want to read those columnists. If the issue is economics, as the editor said, then if what they write sells papers, then everything should be okay — even though they may violate ethical standards. No credibility problem as long as the cash flows in. And as long as nobody blows the whistle.

I keep reading these ethics policies, and there’s one word that I don’t find in any of them. “Credibility” is all over the place. But that word which readers REALLY prize more than credibility, well, I can’t find that word in the index to the Times’ “Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments September 2004.” I don’t find it in the Free Press policies, of which there have been so many it’s difficult to catalog them.

Okay, I made fun of the Times’ pompous index, but maybe it can help us out here. Oops. No sign of the word that comes between “trustees” and “University of Missouri awards for consumer journalism.”

My little policy is not 54 pages long. It has no index, only nine words.

But yes, my policy has that most important of words.

Ride hard, shoot straight and speak the shining TRUTH.

Contact me at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com

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One Response to A TRUE ethics policy

  1. Abe Thurtell says:

    Good post, but I feel obliged to point out that “truth” doesn’t come between “treasury” and “trustees” alphabeticaly. ‘t’ > ‘s’, so “trut” > “trus”.

    Good point. Corrected. Thanks.

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