Making money at the Times

By Joel Thurtell

Thanks to Clark Hoyt’s New York Times Public Editor column of May 24, 2009, I now know how the other half makes out. Hoyt informs us that in a typical year, “star columnist” Thomas Friedman collects 75 grand for speaking 15 times.

That’s $1,125,000 a year just for showing up and yakking for half an hour. Wow. Why does the Times pay the guy?

Oh, that’s right, he does write columns for the paper.

Hoyt’s column reminded me how obtuse and absurd the Times’ supposed “gold standard” ethics policy is.

Friedman got caught taking a check for $75,000 from some unspecified government agency in California.

(California? I thought they were broke, can’t make payday. Now we learn they’re flush enough to fork out 75 k to a pundit? What is the matter with them?)

Turns out, someone outed Friedman and California got its check back. Friedman spoke for free.

All because of the Times’  ethics policy, which bans employees speaking for pay to government agencies.

Hoyt doesn’t explain the rationale for this ban, nor, apparently does the Times’ ethics policy.

It also would have been helpful if he’d mentioned Friedman’s topic and named the government agency. It’s conceivable that a writer as thoughtful and erudite as Friedman might actually have given the government its money’s worth. If Friedman could point out a way for the government to save more than seventy-five grand, who could fault the fee?

(But hey, let’s give Hoyt credit. Can you imagine week after week deflating the egos of high-horse columnists like Friedman and Maureen Dowd? Think how many people he must piss off just by logging onto his computer. Bringing the gods and goddesses of journalism down to earth is by itself a major public service.)

I’m guessing that the ethics gurus in Manhattan are worried the speaking fee would seem to be a bribe from a government to someone who often writes about governments. Might sway Friedman to write favorably about his benefactor.

It’s a legitimate worry, especially when the payout is seventy-five-thousand smackers.

But the Times also prohibits the flow of money in the other direction. It bans its editorial workers from donating money to political organizations.

I think there is a big difference between the two. As longtime readers know, a year ago the Detroit chapter of the Newspaper Guild won an arbitration on my behalf after Gannett’s Free Press editors threatened to fire me if ever again I donated money to a political party. In 2004, I contributed $500 to Michigan Democrats.

I did it because I wanted to have some impact on the political process. In my own small way, I wanted to help defeat George W. Bush. It didn’t work, but I had my say. The arbitrator ruled that I had not compromised the newspaper’s integrity. He ordered Free Press honchos to rescind the ban. He also advised editors to try monitoring their content for bias instead of policing reporters.

It’s important to note, though, that I did not take money from a political or governmental organization that might have been trying to bribe me. Rather, I wrote a check on my own bank account (which was more than the Gannett honchos did when they donated to a political action committee and charged the cost to Gannett) in hopes that I might influence events.

Carry the logic on: If Thomas Friedman had donated $75,000 to a California public agency, instead of taking their check, he could not have been accused of taking a bribe. But Times ethics policy would still have foreclosed his gift.

I think that is dumb. I also think it would be a violation of his right to express himself in whatever law-abiding manner he pleases.

Bet California would love him. Pundit to the rescue!

Okay, enough fantasy.

Back to the Times ethics policy, which would have allowed Friedman to take the money if he were speaking to “educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus.”

Problem is, many nonprofits and educational organizations do have political agendas, though often they’re not apparent because the accounts of 501 (C) 3 groups are not easy to see, being mostly exempt  from sunshine laws. I can tell you from having covered Wayne County government in Michigan that there are nonprofits whose sole function is to serve as inscrutable and therefore unaccountable arms of government.

Does this mean star columnists who command whopping speaking fees must investigate those who hire them to be sure they don’t have hidden political agendas? 

Come on, even the Boy Scouts have political agendas. So do churches. So does the symphony society if they’re taking government grants.

Maybe it means the Times needs to tighten its policy to ban speaking fees from nonprofits as well as government agencies.

Here’s a better idea: Junk that 54-page Times ethics policy with its massive index and florid prose. Just require that all employees do nothing to compromise the Times’ integrity.

That might help keep the Times itself out of trouble, for there is a way in which the Times’ ban on Friedman taking or giving money to a political or government organization would actually violate the law, at least in Michigan. In other states, it might at least lead to inquiries about whether the employer is stepping on workers’ rights.

We have in Michigan the Bullard-Plawecki Employee Right to Know Act, which forbids what amount to red squad activities by employers. It is against the law in Michigan for employers — like the Detroit Free Press in my case — to keep track of workers’ activities, including political activities, outside work.

That means that if a Michigan government agency paid Friedman 75 thou for a speech and he did the work on his own time, the Times could be in violation of Right to Know for delving into that arrangement.

Of course, Michigan being virtually bankrupt, any government agency that could scrape up $75,000 for a speech would deserve to be investigated by the Legislature if not the Attorney General.

And of course too, Friedman might not want to thumb his nose at the Times, whose major-league brand has allowed his minor league mark to fluorish.

But still, once we start examining these so-called ethical guidelines, we find out how self-contradictory and, ultimately, how invasive of and prejudicial to individual rights they are for everybody.

Everybody, that is, except the bosses who write the rules.

Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com

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