The New York Times recently dumped Jay Blotcher as a stringer and, while the dismissal was presented as a concern over ethics, the whole episode makes me wonder if The Times takes ethics seriously at all.
Blotcher, who has been involved with gay and AIDS groups in the past, joined the newspaper as a stringer––a freelance reporter––in 2001 after he left New York City for the Hudson Valley. For much of his employment he contributed stories or reporting without ever getting a byline in the paper.
In late 2003, Blotcher published two stories and, under a new Times policy, his name appeared on those pieces. One story dealt with the trial of a woman who was accused of killing her three children. The second concerned some vandalism on a college campus.
“I never dealt with gay issues or AIDS issues,” Blotcher said.
Someone, an editor, another reporter, or a reader noted Blotcher’s name and recalled that he was once a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP.
“There was no complaint,” wrote Susan Edgerley, the Times metropolitan editor, in response to a Gay City News e-mail query. “We recognized the name from his work with ACT UP.”
That was it for Blotcher. On January 12, Lew Serviss, a Times editor, told him the paper would no longer use him in any section. When he appealed to Edgerley she responded, “I am setting the bar high to protect against any appearance of conflict of interest that might result through the hiring of stringers and leg-people. My motivation is expediency as well as ethics––we simply do not spend as much time checking into the backgrounds of independent contractors as we do of fulltime staff people.”
Let’s understand this. Blotcher has no current political affiliations so he complies with the Times ethics policy, but it was easier to just toss him overboard. So why does this paper have an ethics policy?
An ethics policy tells employees how to conduct themselves. It gives managers a standard they can use t o measure employee conduct. If a reader accuses the paper of bias, The Times should be able to point to its ethics policy and say we are satisfied that we did the right thing.
The real problem here is that The Times isn’t committed to its own ethics policy. Let’s look at just two Times reporters.
Lawrence K. Altman is a former employee of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and he regularly reports on that agency. Altman also sits on an advisory board that administers a CDC fellowship program. In other words, his relationship with the CDC continues. That would be an actual conflict of interest.
Bernard Weinraub covers the film industry in Los Angeles and his wife heads Columbia Pictures. A portion of their household income, probably the majority, comes from a major player in the industry Weinraub covers. That would also be an actual conflict of interest.
If The Times believed in its ethics policy then it would defend a Jay Blotcher when he follows that policy, but then the newspaper would have to do something about Weinraub and Altman. Neither man returned a phone call seeking comment.
The Times isn’t serious about ethics. The paper, to use Edgerley’s word, is concerned with “expediency.”