Not too long ago, I read a post about a recent Thrillist/JetBlue-sponsored Jamaican getaway for “press people” that not only involved free airfare and lodging at a luxury hotel, (hot tub and personal butler included) but a heaping ton of valid ethical questions, as well.
Now that the F.C.C. is proposing a law that well-known bloggers disclose freebies to preserve the ideal of transparency on the Web, some are asking whether established mainstream media outlets should be required by law to follow their example.
For those of you who are hell-bent on going medieval on every allegedly ‘independent’ reporter and publisher who spent last weekend in a Jägar-scented pile of free tee-shirts and drunk co-workers, this ought to be a treat.
Now, it seems that someone from the glorified ‘big media’ sector has actually suffered the consequences of participating in the latest Thrillist junket. The victim: New York Times columnist Mike Albo.
For those of you who are wondering if he has any biological connection to Jessica Alba, (and if he does, can he hook you up?) here’s a link to his Web site.
Warning: you might not want to open this one in a crowded room…unless, of course, you and your buddies have a ‘thing’ for poorly censored mustachioed men and new age Web design.
After Albo’s excursions in Jamaica, however, “Critical Shopper” is now in critical condition. According to this recent Gawker post, the Times severed Albo for violating ethics policies…after essentially dismissing the possibility of moral unsoundness in a formal statement last week. According to the Daily Finance post, a Times spokeswoman actually defended Albo’s participation by playing up his freelancer status.
Albo is a “freelancer and was not on assignment for the Times, which he made clear to the organizers of the trip. So we do not see any violation of our rules.”
Several hours after the Daily Finance published the story, however, the spokeswoman seemed to reconnect with her inner disciplinarian. By 5:52 p.m., she issued the following statement:
“After a further review of the details, we do have concerns about Mike Albo’s participation in the Jamaica trip organized by Thrillist. To the extent feasible, we apply our strict ethical standards to all Times contributors, and accepting free trips and other giveaways is at odds with those standards. We will be discussing the situation further with Mr. Albo and his editors at the Times.”
Apparently, the issue of Albo’s termination somehow made it to the forefront of that ‘discussion’ during that time.
The paper’s ethics policy directly forbids staff members from accepting free goodies from potential sources. These policies, however, trickle down to freelancers, who, according to company policy “should accept the same ethical standards as staff members as a condition of their assignments for us.” Those who fail to do so risk the axe.
Who else thinks that this is a little over the top?
While I definitely agree that employees at mainstream media outlets should regularly take it upon themselves to sharpen the line between news and advertising, I’m going to have to say that firing in this case is a little extreme and, in some ways, out of character.
Maybe I’m missing something here, but I fail to see how a free trip to Jamaica sponsored by two travel companies directly jeopardizes the integrity of Albo’s shopping column. Maybe it’s just me, but I fail to see the connection.
On that note, I’d be curious to know exactly how far the Times goes in checking out contributing freelancers. How does the head of the ethics committee actually verify whether Joe Freelancer, who could actually stand to benefit from an abundance of freebie-laden side projects, has ever accepted a paid vacation or free tech device.
They can’t exactly attach wildlife tracking devices to all of their employees (can they?).
In addition, one commenter made what I think is a really good point—okay, so I will agree that maybe firing a freelancer was a little too much.
That said, I do like the way “elinorwhyme” backs that up.
“It’s not exactly in the same realm,” she says, “as making up facts about WMDs in Iraq.”
Why didn’t I think of that?
I’m sure we all remember the fantastic failure of Judith Miller…and I seem to recall that the Times stood behind her pretty explicitly for a while in that.
I actually had a professor here my freshman year who used to joke that everyone in the journalism school should strive for a job at the Times because, as he said, “no one has ever been fired.”
I guess this case just completely debunks that theory. I guess you could also make the case for Jayson Blair, who, oddly enough, is set to give a lecture on media ethics next week.
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