The Free Press

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

In the second of three Times pieces he wrote about DriveSavers, Pogue included this disclaimer: "Had I been a paying customer and not a reviewer, I would have been charged about $2,000."

After I inquired about the matter, the Times added a disclaimer of its own to the bottom of Pogue's Web-based column.

Pogue "misconstrued the terms under which The Times accepts free use of goods or services for review," the disclaimer says. "The policy allows temporary loans from vendors or manufacturers of equipment or materials for review, and they must be returned after testing."

McNulty said Pogue was not subject to the strict no-freebies policy applied to travel writers. Therefore he would not be barred from continuing to write his technology column on a contract basis. McNulty said the Timesplanned to cut a check to DriveSavers to cover the cost of the company's service to Pogue.

NPR keeps a similar no-swag rule.

"NPR's policy is that we don't take freebies to do stories," says Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman for NPR, which ran a September 2005 DriveSavers segment by Pogue titled "Recovering From a Hard-Drive Disaster." "I wish [Pogue] had informed NPR that he had this arrangement with this company. It would be up to management to make that decision. But I think the proper thing would be to turn down the story. How could we guarantee he was doing a fair job of determining whether this company was valuable or not?"

The Tiffany Network likewise bans valuable gifts from sources.

"We do not accept gifts to defray costs or allow any appearance of conflict," says CBS spokeswoman Sandra Genelius. "It's simple: It's not acceptable. So we're taking the issue up with Mr. Pogue."

In response to my inquiry last Friday, CBS News Sunday Morning host Charles Osgood described Pogue's swag deal near the end of the show's March 12 edition.

"To make a long story short, David apologizes, and so do we," Osgood said.

For all these strong official policies about ethics, Pogue's case suggests journalism's standard-bearers employ people blithe to one of the simplest, most obvious of journalistic standards -- the one that says don't take valuable, free stuff from people you're writing about.

According to Times spokeswoman McNulty, Pogue's DriveSavers freebie slipped through because of an ethical misunderstanding by Pogue and his editors.

"In preparing David Pogue's columns about DriveSavers, which appeared in an e-mail column and on the New York Times on the Web, the columnist and his editors misconstrued the terms under which the Times accepts goods or services for review," McNulty says. "That policy provides for temporary loans from vendors of equipment or materials to be reviewed, and their return after testing. In the case of a service like this, the Times should have paid the vendor. The Times has contacted DriveSavers to arrange payment."

That's one hell of a misunderstanding.

By this accounting, not only Pogue, but also several New York Times editors, interpreted the act of suffering a hard-drive crash, then getting a $2,000 repair job for free and writing a glowing article about the company, as occupying the same ethical ballpark as the far less compromising act of reviewing a loaner iPod and mailing it back to Apple.

This is startling given the public ethical nitpicking going on at the Times these days. On Feb. 26, Times Public Editor Byron Calame devoted 1,100 words to fretting about whether near-worthless employee discounts that some companies offer New York Times workers have somehow created a conflict of interest in cases where the paper covered those companies. All the while, if I understand McNulty correctly, a Times contributor and his editors believed it was OK to accept thousands of dollars' worth of free services from a story subject.

With such a vast gray area existing in the minds of Times editors, it raises some questions: Have writers and editors in the Times real estate section until now labored under the impression that they could solve their own home termite infestations gratis by writing glowing pest-exterminator reviews? What about the Automobiles section? I wonder how often editors there get story pitches about car repair shops.

The Tiffany Network, of Good Night, and Good Luckfame, supposed standard-bearer of TV journalistic ethics, has long been home to a massive tome titled the "CBS News Standards and Practices," known inside the company as the "Blue Book," which has served as a strict guide to company ethics for decades.

Former CBS newsman Marvin Kalb, lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center, writes and lectures on ethics in journalism. I asked him about Pogue and the old CBS News.

"If his computer was busted, he should have paid to get it fixed," Kalb told me. Pogue's "explanation leaves the impression he avoided payment by doing the story on how terrific the company was. But I hasten to add, my ethical standards are somewhat antique and probably not appropriate for today's more expansive marketplace."

If that's so, it's too bad. Journalistic standards aren't just insider nitpicking. They're supposed to give readers the impression that news pages display reporters' uncompromised stab at finding out and writing the truth.

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