When it comes to making deals,
sometimes the price is just too high.
By Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee Chair
Late last month, a publicist hired by United Airlines and US Airways offered three of the nation's most respected newspapers a deal they should never have accepted.
The publicist told them he would give them details about a proposed $5 billion merger, provided they didn't call outside sources for comment.
Incredibly, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal agreed to the publicist's terms. The deal fell through, though, when an online news source got the story through its own initiative without compromising its independence or objectivity.
Incredibly, too, only a few media watchdogs have howled at this serious ethical transgression.
Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum and a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, is one watchdog who has spoken out. View his commentary.
This is not just a routine embargo on time of publication, McMasters points out, but an embargo on sources.
An editor at The Washington Post defended the arrangement on grounds it was important not to get beat on the story. "It does a better job for readers to have the story on the first day than not to have the story," said Jill Dutt, assistant managing editor for financial news.
But isn't it more important to have the complete story, including independent experts who can comment about the effect such a merger would have on the flying public? The answer should be obvious.
The SPJ Code of Ethics is very clear in this area. "Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage," it says.
In their zeal to be first with a story, ethical journalists shouldn't make deals that compromise what is even more important to their readers -- a balanced, accurate and complete account.