The Free Press

When do gifts to journalists turn into a conflict of interest? When a New York Times writer gets his computer repaired.

I was working on my laptop last week when it suddenly appeared: the dreaded spinning pinwheel of death. It's a multicolored rotating ball that signifies one's Apple computer has momentarily frozen. The pinwheel spun, and spun, and spun. It turned out my hard drive had crashed. My tech friend Ted examined it and said that my five years' worth of computer files might be lost unless I took the drive to a place called DriveSavers in Novato, which specializes in rescuing data from hard drives that have stopped working.

I didn't end up recovering my data.

But I did retrieve some fascinating information thanks to my conversation with a DriveSavers sales rep, who tipped me off to a story involving the age-old journalistic quandary of swag -- the free goodies and services companies incessantly press upon journalists in hopes of getting positive press.

DriveSavers frequently provides services to people involved in fields such as movie and music production, whose lost files can be worth fortunes. And the standard DriveSavers fee for a successful data-recovery operation is $2,700, far too rich for my blood.

When I told the DriveSavers sales representative that my drive contained mostly text files because I was a journalist, the sales rep said that a CBS journalist had recently been "comped" free disk-retrieval service as part of a story he'd done on the company, and that I might want to write a story about DriveSavers, too. I got a story all right, but not the one DriveSavers had in mind. It turned out the sales representative was referring to a situation in which New York Times columnist David Pogue, who is also a contributor to CBS News and National Public Radio, received $2,000 in free personal-data-recovery services from DriveSavers in connection with pieces Pogue did for all three news organizations. Pogue wrote the stories after his own drive crashed, entombing his voice message and e-mail files.

"I think what I wrote in the column puts it best: 'This unfortunate event was, perhaps, my opportunity to review a service I'd always wondered about,'" Pogue told me, by way of explanation of his free-service arrangement.

John Christopher of DriveSavers says the company waived the fee not as payment for positive publicity, but as a "professional courtesy" to Pogue.

In my view, that's a pretty significant violation of journalism's ethical conventions, ones I would have expected to have been in force at the gold standards of American print, television, and radio journalism. How is a reader, or viewer, or listener, to know a journalist's analysis is on the up and up if a writer receives expensive goodies from a story subject?

The case of Pogue, and the DriveSavers pieces he did for the New York Times, CBS News, and NPR, seems to suggest that for all the ballyhoo these days about journalistic ethics, standards, and practices, overseers at the zenith of the U.S. news business allowed at least one journalist and his editors to believe those standards don't apply to them.

In terms of publicity value, DriveSavers made out very well with Pogue.

"DriveSavers is a professional data-recovery company," Pogue wrote in one of three Times electronic columns about the company. "You send them your mangled drive. They take it into a clean room, where space-suited technicians replace the damaged parts from a huge inventory of components, get the things spinning again, and painstakingly re-create the data on your dead drive, sector by sector. They send the recovered files back to you on CD's, DVD's or over the Internet."

Pogue, for his part, told me that in accepting a $2,000 gift from DriveSavers, he believed he was following common industry practice.

"Every reviewer of services, of any kind -- theater, music, restaurants, travel -- gets free services for review purposes," he wrote me via e-mail. "None of this is disclosed, although we could argue about whether it should be."

That would be astonishing if true. It's not.

Mr. Pogue's $2,000 in swag violates the official policies of most serious news organizations. This is a distinction of magnitude, not kind: At SF Weekly we receive piles of unsolicited free books and CDs in the mail. A few get reviewed. Most are given away or thrown out. Our reviewers get into theater and music shows for free. The paper does not have a written policy regarding swag. New York Times theater reviewers likewise are admitted to performances free. But at SF Weekly and other news organizations, it's generally understood that one doesn't accept gifts of significant value from story sources, particularly if the freebies represent a personal benefit to the journalist.

More to the point, Pogue's swag transaction runs specifically counter to the standards of the news organizations that featured Pogue's DriveSavers pieces.

The Gray Lady is famous for her no-freebies policy (theater tickets for reviewers excluded).

"New York Times rules require travel writers, or freelancers for our travel section and magazines, to pay for everything they do and bar writers who have ever accepted freebies from writing for us. Our restaurant critics always pay for their meals," Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty told me. "The answer to your question -- do New York Times travel writers get free hotels, meals, cruises, theater tickets, music, as Pogue suggests -- is no."

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