Conflict of interest and the lamentable affair of David Brooks

Conflict of interest among journalists is an exasperating subject, especially now when shrunken budgets and the transformation of jobs into gigs force many journalists into a perpetual hunt for supplemental pay. That means every story we read may be an audition for future work (or a thank-you for past employment), and we’re left to wonder how single-minded the writer’s commitment to us can be.

Same problem at the other end of the media hierarchy. There, star journalists cash in on notoriety from their day jobs, and the lead commentator for a prestige publication who moonlights on cable TV can make tens of thousands to speak at a trade association confab or corporate retreat. That’s a powerful incentive to pick subjects and grind axes that sharpen the journalist’s brand — which again raises the question, when we read their work, of who else they’re working for.

So conflict of interests rears its head differently at different ends of the income spectrum, but the underlying issue is the same: Whether outside loyalties, obligations or entanglements — past, current or hoped-for — tilt the work the journalist does for their principal client (that’s us), so that what we see is produced with a private constituency in mind and is, in a word, corrupted.

And so to the problem of New York Times columnist David Brooks, a lucid and humane writer, bestselling author, regular on the PBS NewsHour and one of the country’s leading moderate conservatives. Reporting by Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac for BuzzFeed News earlier this month found that alongside his Times work Brooks was holding down a second job leading a nonprofit he helped found called Weave: The Social Fabric Project. Weave was born in 2018 within the Aspen Institute, an elite Washington-based think tank; its focus is community building and social renewal, topics dear to Brooks, who has pivoted from politics to philosophizing, with one recent book titled The Road to Character and another subtitled The Quest for a Moral Life.

Since its creation, Brooks has written about Weave several times in his regular Times columns, promoting its work toward creating “a self-reinforcing national movement,” and has sporadically disclosed his involvement in it, without mentioning how much he was getting or identifying Weave’s funders, a nettlesome element once BuzzFeed broke the story.

Weave’s funders, it turns out, include Facebook, which gave $250,000 in 2018; Miguel Bezos, father of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who gave $300,000, and a gaggle of blue-chip corporate supporters. Moreover, as an employee of Aspen, Brooks also benefits from a vast funding network, which supplies its $140 million-plus in annual income. Neither Aspen nor Brooks has said how much money he has gotten since Weave launched nearly three years ago.

The full extent of Brooks’s work for Aspen isn’t clear. BuzzFeed reported he wrote and spoke favorably in various venues, including The Times, about Weave and its supporters. Included are a recent blog he wrote for a Facebook corporate site praising the tech giant’s controversial Facebook Groups as a community-builder, and joining a Facebook-sponsored panel at New York University. A paid advertorial extolling Upswell, a Weave donor, ran in the Chronicle of Philanthropy under his byline.

In the aftermath of BuzzFeed’s stories, Brooks resigned his Aspen job, which the Times duly reported in a 10-paragraph article on Page A26 saying his editors had concluded that “holding a paid position at Weave presents a conflict of interest in writing about the work of the project, its donors or the broader issues it focuses on.” The Times appended a note announcing his resignation to his archived columns mentioning Weave, Aspen or related entities, a curious addendum that leaves the reader puzzled over how his former job affects the way the pieces should be read.

And that seems to be that. Response from the journalism community, not normally a forgiving crowd, has been nearly non-existent. In two press accounts I saw ethicists commented mainly on Brooks’s failure to tell his readers about his moonlighting, as if disclosure would have set things right.

At a time when journalism seems eager to clean up its act and people are losing their jobs for everything from rancid tweets to after-hours predation, the tolerance for David Brooks’s conflicts deserves a closer look. Let me summarize: Over a period of years, a prominent writer on what is unquestionably the most influential opinion forum of the world’s most powerful news organization was privately receiving direct financial support from, and collaborating with, a network of formidable individuals and entities. Among them: Facebook, the $700 billion tech powerhouse that spent nearly $20 million on lobbying last year alone, when it came under intense scrutiny for activities with vast public consequence; and the father of the richest person in modern history, Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, whose retail colossus is almost certain to draw regulatory or antitrust attention under the Biden administration.

That is a conflict of interest, a big one. Mountains of cash don’t have to change hands for it to be hugely problematic. What’s at issue is dependency — whether that outside support went to personal enrichment, funded a high-minded project of civic betterment, or simply tickled Brooks’s vanity doesn’t matter. The supporters were an unacknowledged constituency that he couldn’t fail to have been mindful of when he handled his duties as an op-ed writer for the Times.

By itself, disclosing those relationships is a limp response. Disclosure can never cleanse work of its bias; it can only alert readers to the possibility that bias exists and dare them to find it. And we can’t know how extensive the overlap is between Brooks’s sweeping work as a commentator and the interests of his benefactors, especially when they are giants whose operations straddle the global economy. Plus, we can’t know the topics he kept away from, on the off-chance they might irritate one of his paymasters. Giving up his paid position with Weave, as he now has, still leaves him in a pivotal role leading an organization that relies on their largesse, and does nothing to keep him from monetizing that involvement on the lecture circuit.

The issue here is one that journalists have been agonizing over in recent years, for good reason. It’s trust, the public’s confidence that the work we get is first and foremost the product of honest efforts to serve us well, and it’s disappointing to realize that the country’s premier news organization appears ready to tolerate behavior from a marquee journalist that constitutes a betrayal of that trust. Conflict of interest is an unavoidable source of potential corruption in journalism, and this is no way to handle it.

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