Not every journalist is presented a $2,000 wristwatch "in gratitude" for requesting an interview. Nor is it routine to be offered a free jet plane ticket to Paradise Island to conduct one. Yet, these were the overtures Post staff writer Rudy Maxa came upon in his efforts to meet with Mohammed al-Faisi, "The $6 Billion Sheik." It's all recounted--return of the watch, refusal of the air fare--at the end of Mr. Maxa's long article on the sheik May 30. Mohammed al-Faisi, you'll remember, made news in Washington earlier when he gave the city $50,000 for its summer youth job program.
Mr. Maxa's revelation prompted a Washington lawyer "to wonder whether other less forthcoming members of the Fourth Estate have received or been offered gifts by the subjects of their interviews" and whether journalists should consider conflict-of-interest disclosures "similar to those mandated for public officials." Even though an occasional attempt is made to legislate such a mandate, I don't see the latter happening. Nor would I agree there is justification for it. You can wager that lawyers would see it the same way for their profession.
The media long ago abandoned their laissez-faire attitude toward acceptance of gifts, the compensation for which usually was favorable copy for the donor. It was not unknown for a reporter to write a speech for a political candidate or a press release for an athletic team.
None of that is tolerated today. The Post says, "We pay our own way. We accept no gifts from news sources. Exceptions are minimal (tickets to cultural events to be reviewed) or obvious (invitations to meals)." Virtually all newspapers affirm the same prohibitions, though not all in writing. Those who avoid "commandments in stone" for these and other potential conflicts of interest say, according to the Associated Press Managing Editors Association, they do not want "rigid, inflexible rules; problems with the Newspaper Guild; a committee product," as a code of ethics. They prefer to rely on "word- of-mouth and individual professionalism." It's an honor system either way, and presumably it works.
I have seen journalists arguing awkwardly against accepting a paid-in-full hotel bill abroad where the local government sees it as the thing to do for a group traveling with a secretary of state. News people are scrupulous also about paying their own way on U.S. government carriers. Organization expense accounts see to all that as a guarantee against any notion the news can be bought.
As a consequence, perhaps, the press is quick to pounce on the appearance of conflict of interest by others. In two articles this week, The Post reported in considerable detail about expenses- paid trips by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and some members of his staff. It was noted that the trips may be justified if they bear "a direct relationship to official duties," but "are not supposed to be disguised vacations." On the evidence, the chairman's judgment warrants being questioned, as some readers already have. In addition to what has been called "comp"-- shorthand for bed and board--the chairman was paid for speeches.
About this, the press shouldn't lose sight of a mote in its own eye. There are a fair number of columnists, editors and reporters who augment their own incomes with travel and honorariuums for speeches--sometimes on campuses, before trade organizations, talking to groups whose activities their own medium may be covering regularly. The speakers have not been elected to office, can do nothing to affect the legislative process, can't promise anyone a job. Not evident conflicts of interest. Still, payment is proffered for informed discussion of events that are at least extensions of one's daily work. I received my maiden honorarium recently for participating in a conference about the media. To take the high ground, as inevitably it will, the press should want to avoid being seen as "both the archer and the mark."
Conflicts of interest may arise with sudden seizure. Editor and Publisher magazine reported recently: "A Connecticut superior court judge has placed on accelerated rehabilitation Hartford Advocate managing editor Gary Neilsen, who was arrested last February by Hartford police during what Neilsen said was research for an article on prostitution. Neilsen's legal counsel said that Neilsen had accepted accelerated rehabilitation out of expediency."
Sounds like one to me.