Sex isn’t the only way to spoil a news relationship

Sleeping with a source seems like such a transparently bad idea there wouldn’t seem to be much point exploring why journalists shouldn’t do it.

But with The Los Angeles Times summarily firing one of its top investigative reporters after he told his bosses he’d had a brief affair with an informant, it seems worthwhile to look at what the limits ought to be in the relations between journalists and sources.

Physical intimacy is only one of many powerful off-screen entanglements that can develop amid the mutual dependency that often arises between reporter and source. Few of them draw the same gut-level disapproval as extramarital sex, but many still have the potential to corrupt the work that the public sees.

In this case, the Times reporter, Jason Felch, had been investigating the alleged failure of LA-based Occidental College to comply fully with federal rules requiring it to report complaints of sexual wrongdoing on campus. Felch had written three stories on the subject and had accused Occidental of incomplete disclosure, asserting that allegations of 27 sexual assaults had wrongly gone unreported to U.S. education authorities.

Occidental didn’t address the substance of the stories before they were published, and afterward hired a PR firm to prepare a detailed response. It was presented to the Times in March, three months after the last story ran.

The school argued, persuasively, that Felch had misunderstood his data, and that the 27 unreported instances did not involve assaults at all, but instead covered a range of allegations—distasteful emails, for instance—that fell below the threshold of significance at which disclosure is legally mandatory.

It was, then, when his bosses confronted him with the apparent reporting errors that Felch told them about his romance. He says the woman hadn’t been a source since the beginning of their affair—a contention that conflicts with what the Times says he initially said. He also says the affair was brief and, by now, was over.

Still, the Times fired Felch—a 10-year employee and a onetime Pulitzer finalist—and editor Davan Maharaj said Felch’s failure to tell his bosses sooner of his “inappropriate relationship” amounted to “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate.” The core point: “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information in appearance as well as in fact.”

I’m always uneasy when decisions like this one are made with an eye to appearances, and the Times allowed the core question—was Felch’s reporting skewed by his affections?—to go unaddressed. Too bad, because as a matter of professional conduct (as opposed to personal morality), that’s the question that really ought to matter.

But that silence is unavoidable. Who can possibly know? That’s why sex has to be off-limits for reporter and source. It destroys any reasonable expectation that the source’s influence will be weighed fairly and dispassionately. Did the source offer sex as a way to make sure his or her account got greater weight? Did the reporter suggest that sex might be a way to ensure the source version of evens is taken seriously?

And what if sex comes to be seen as a routine part of the bargain, if potential sources understand they might be asked for favors in exchange for sympathetic treatment? How much harm might be done in a general way to the ever-imperiled flow of publicly significant information?

Continue reading “Sex isn’t the only way to spoil a news relationship”

Fox News offers another candidate for high office

Originally published Feb. 11, 2013

The spectacle of TV personality Geraldo Rivera using his soapbox with Fox News to test-market a possible run for the U.S. Senate has, not surprisingly, caused some real journalists to cough up hairballs.

“If an on-air person makes any pretense about being a journalist, then obviously he should not be using his station or network to promote his candidacy,” Marvin Kalb, former NBC News stalwart and a founder of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, told Media Matters. “He should immediately pull himself/herself off the air, then announce his candidacy, and run.”

Or, as Sonny Albarado, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, put it: “Running for public office and being a journalist are incompatible.”

Now, I may be doing Geraldo a disservice, but to me he has always been a vaguely clownish self-promoter, and it’s hard for me to condemn him for betraying journalistic principle when I never thought he was a journalist. He can hardly have corrupted a professionalism he didn’t profess, and in that respect there’s no point in defrocking him, since he was never ordained.

That doesn’t, however, mean what he’s doing now is OK. But to me the sin isn’t his, it’s Fox News’.  Here I agree with David Zurawik, the Baltimore Sun’s TV critic, who said it’s “really wrong that Fox allows itself to play this political role.”

The wrongdoing doesn’t have to do with Geraldo’s personal failure to uphold some kind of journalistic neutrality. It lies in Fox News’ institutional failure to accept some responsibility for encouraging fairness in the political system. Continue reading “Fox News offers another candidate for high office”

On transparency: When coming clean isn’t clean enough

 

TechCrunch is a highly regarded news site that was founded in 2005 and won a reputation for scoops on Silicon Valley dealmaking. AOL bought it last year as one of several big moves by the onetime online powerhouse—moves that included acquiring Huffington Post and installing impresario Arianna Huffington as AOL editorial chief—to reinvent itself as a must-visit emporium of news and comment.

At the time of the deal, reportedly worth $30 million, AOL said it expected TechCrunch’s entrepreneurial founder, Michael Arrington, to stick around for at least three years. Then came word earlier this month that Arrington was starting a venture capital fund, which would sprinkle seed capital on tech startups. Called CrunchFund, it had among its early investors AOL itself, which put up $10 million of an initial $20 million in funding.

Here’s where it gets tacky. Although Arrington would step aside as TechCrunch managing editor, both he and the site would continue to cover projects that the fund would help bankroll.    

That is a notable departure, to say the least, from customary journalistic protocol, which demands that reporters steer wide of topics in which they have personal stakes. And so the fat hit the fire. After all, the potential wasn’t just pimping the Continue reading “On transparency: When coming clean isn’t clean enough”

A Robust Future for Conflict of Interest

This was first published in: Christopher Meyers, ed., Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach. NY: Oxford University Press, 2010. Conflict of interest has become a centerpiece in the claim by Internet-based commentators to moral superiority over their legacy news media counterparts. The insistence of so-called mainstream journalists that they are free not just of private material […]

The prickly problem of conflict of interest in cable news

Published: November 9, 2009 I watch Howard Kurtz’s “Reliable Sources” media-review show most Sunday mornings on CNN. That’s partly because since Fox News scrapped its weekly “News Watch,” it’s the only regular program on national television that looks at the news media critically. That’s also because Kurtz, the Washington Post’s chief media writer, does a […]