The murky world of conflicts of interest

April 2, 2007

Sometimes a newsroom conflict of interest is as unmistakable as a pimple on prom night.
Consider a financial writer praising a company whose stock she owns or a real estate reporter hyping a neighborhood where he has land. There, the journalists’ private interest in telling certain things certain ways can’t help but clash with a professional duty to serve the public with clean hands.

But you often hear talk about conflicts of interest when the activities involved don’t clearly influence the journalism, and which may be nettlesome largely because employers abhor criticism. Why shouldn’t a sports reporter donate to a mayoral candidate? Even if it’s condemned as a “perceived” conflict of interest, is it really a threat to honest sports coverage — or an image problem for the newspaper?

And so to the current affair at the Los Angeles Times, which says something disturbing about the tremulous way in which a troubled profession is trying to reclaim a moral mandate it believes is slipping away.

There the opinion editor, Andres Martinez, with his publisher’s approval, decided a few months ago to try to reinvigorate his pages by getting prominent outsiders to guest-edit Sunday sections four times a year  come up with themes, find writers, shape the final product.

Hoping to get Steven Spielberg for his inaugural run, Martinez approached a senior Hollywood publicist who has worked for Spielberg. The publicist instead suggested producer Brian Grazer, himself no slouch, having made “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Da Vinci Code” (also a 1994 movie on newsroom ethics, “The Paper.”) Grazer agreed, and conscripted a half-dozen reputable writers on topics ranging from lie detectors to paparazzi.

Shortly before the section was to run, it emerged that Martinez’s girlfriend works for the publicist who referred him to Grazer. (The producer wasn’t then a client of the PR firm, but they had worked together in the past and he soon became a client again.) So had Grazer been tapped for the guest-editing slot because of the girlfriend’s improper influence on Martinez?

Conflicts of interest are a sore subject at the Times, which was convulsed by a 1999 scandal in which the paper secretly agreed to a revenue partnership with the new Staples Center, a major civic project that it was covering.

In the Martinez case, Times publisher David Hiller first said, “We have an appearance and not a case of actual undue influence,” as if mere appearance wasn’t a problem. A few days later, Hiller doubled back and killed the section because, he said, “it might appear that something might not be quite right.” Editor Martinez, humiliated, quit.

“It raised questions,” the paper’s editor James O’Shea said. “This is an entire section being handed over to someone who’s represented by someone who’s romantically involved with the editor who’s handing it over. The whole thing smelled.”

Maybe, but let’s consider the scenario that would make this genuinely troublesome: Editor’s girlfriend importunes him to throw coveted benefit to her client, thereby getting a feather in her cap. Editor complies to appease girlfriend, and a plum assignment goes to her candidate.

What if, instead, it’s this: Editor uses girlfriend’s ties to get to well-connected publicist, who suggests a candidate and arranges introductions, to his benefit as well as the paper’s?
While the first scenario seems a conflict of interest, does the second? Publisher Hiller essentially said it doesn’t matter: “We believe that this relationship did not influence the selection of Brian [Grazer] as guest editor. Nonetheless, in order to avoid even the appearance of conflict, we felt the best course of action was not to publish the section.”
But appearances deceive. Sometimes things aren’t what they seem. If critics of the project were wrong, wouldn’t the principled position be to correct their misperceptions instead of caving to them?

But then the whole guest-editing fiasco was undertaken in the name of appearances, to engineer a perception of the paper’s deep integration into the intellectual life of its vast audience by relinquishing its editorial independence and instead selecting and brandishing marquee names as ersatz collaborators. The hope was to enlist the likes of ex-defense chief Donald Rumsfeld, Apple boss Steve Jobs, philanthropist Melissa Gates and investor Warren Buffett as guest editors, luminaries squarely within the coverage ambit of a top national news organization.

So the conflict of interest that is most disturbing is not the specious one the editor and his girlfriend were accused of stumbling into, but the serious one he and his newspaper were avidly seeking.

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