An Unfortunate Necessity for Journalism

The New York Times has long been known as the "Gray Lady of Journalism."  The term is in part a tribute to the paper’s respectability and in part a jibe at its stodginess.

I am here to report today that the Times has just gotten more respectable and more stodgy and, in the process, issued a devastating critique of the entire field of journalism in America in the early years of the new millennium.

The Times is in the process of adopting a new set of reportorial guidelines. They are contained in a 53-page document called Ethical Journalism, which is three years in the making.  As Nick Paumgarten points out in the Jan. 27 issue of The New Yorker, the document tells "what reporters, columnists, and editors may or may not do, accept, join, advocate, invest in or appear at," and it is "so thorough that even the index, with its six pages of entries such as ‘code of ethics, purpose of,’ ‘news sources, romantic involvement with,’ ‘meals, accepting, guidelines for,’ and ‘information, false,’ is enough to make a man consider a career in public relations."

Here are but a few of the new regulations for employees of The New York Times:

--Journalists may not have any financial interest in a story they cover.

--If they are business, financial or editorial page editors, they may not own any stocks, except for holdings in The New York Times.

--They may not contribute money to political campaigns.

--They may not attend political rallies except to write about them.

--They may not run for office.

--They may not wear buttons that advertise candidates or adorn their lawns with signs that  advertise candidates or festoon the bumpers of their cars with stickers that advertise candidates.

--If they report on matters of culture and collect objects of art, they must submit to the paper an annual list of their acquisitions.

--If they report on sports, they may not gamble on the games.

--They may, however, have an occasional snack at a function they cover: "A simple buffet of muffins and coffee at a news conference, for example, is harmless."

It is too early to tell what effect all of this will have on the Times, and what will be made of it by journalists at other news organizations, both print and broadcast. So far, says Nick Paumgarten, "Of a half-dozen Times staff members contacted, none had read the thing yet.  They were busy putting out the paper."

Taken individually, each of the guidelines in the Gray Lady’s Ethical Journalism seems to make sense. Members of the press should not have a financial interest in their stories, should not attach themselves to political causes or candidates, should not allow themselves to be wined and dined at great expense by those upon whom they report.

But taken as a whole, they seem positively daunting, a set of restrictions on the personal behavior of reporters that they are unlikely even to remember, much less put into practice on a daily basis.

What is most striking about The New York Times’s new commandments is the paper’s perception---an accurate one, I believe---that they are necessary. Ethical Journalism is not just the Times’s way of trying to create a more accurate and responsible publication; it is the Times’s way of acknowledging the mistrust that so many Americans feel for the entire journalistic establishment today, the sense that reporters are too often interested in promoting their own views rather than relating the facts, too often interested in lining their own pockets than serving the public good.

The New York Times should be commended for its new policies. The field of journalism should be embarrassed for their necessity.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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