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Opinion New York Times publishes another disclosure about a reporter’s book conflict

Michael Phelps presents the medals during the Men’s 200 meter individual medley medal ceremony on June 18. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

In the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, New York Times sports reporter Karen Crouse last month wrote a story on the enduring influence of U.S. swimming legend Michael Phelps on the next generation of aquatic competitors.

Key passages include this one: “Five years into retirement, Phelps has exchanged isolation for outreach, sprinkling instruction and advice like the pope blessing his flock with holy water. As a mentor, he has found a way to pull this U.S. team along in his wake without getting wet.”

And this one: “After spending half his life focused on maximizing his potential, Phelps is enjoying his new purpose: helping the next generation of swimmers maximize theirs.”

The story even credits Phelpsian inspiration with inspiring mentee Hali Flickinger past a rival in a race. “[W]ith Phelps’s voice in her head, she cashed out all the hard work she had banked,” writes Crouse.

A month later, the Times attached an editor’s note to the story: “After this article was published, editors learned that the reporter had entered an agreement to co-write a book with Michael Phelps. If editors had been aware of the conflict, the reporter would not have been given the assignment.” The editor’s note was dated Tuesday, July 13.

Unstated in the editor’s note is how this omission evolved in the first place. What’s clear is that on July 9, Pat Forde wrote about the arrangement between Crouse and Phelps in an article for Sports Illustrated. “Phelps is working on a book with Karen Crouse of The New York Times that he says goes into greater detail about his struggles outside the pool.”

The Erik Wemple Blog asked the Times where there would be any disciplinary action associated with the story. Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the Times, responded, in part, “As the editors’ note makes clear, the arrangement was a conflict of interest. This was a significant lapse in judgment. We are reviewing this matter and will take appropriate action.”

Crouse has some familiarity with Phelps’ “struggles outside the pool.” Back in 2017, she wrote a story about how Phelps had assisted Australian swimming star Grant Hackett, among others, in dealing with his mental health issues. Headlined “Michael Phelps: A Golden Shoulder to Lean On,” the deeply reported piece discussed the swimmer’s own troubles with anxiety and depression, along with his 2014 stay at an Arizona treatment center. “Recognizing how difficult it is for many people to recognize their vulnerabilities and reach out for help, Phelps has devoted himself to unraveling the stigma of mental illness,” wrote Crouse.

After Sports Illustrated reported the book arrangement, Crouse tweeted:

Crouse was hired by the Times after honing her news chops at seven dailies; she also earned a varsity letter in swimming at the University of Southern California, according to her Times bio. She has chronicled Phelps’ exploits throughout her Times career, including the eight gold medals he won in the Beijing 2008 Olympics, eclipsing the record of Mark Spitz. In 2009, she wrote a feature story on the challenges posed by Phelps’ runaway fame — a piece that came after Phelps was photographed holding a bong.

In a brief phone call, Crouse declined to be interviewed about the matter. Inquiries to Phelps’ representatives are pending.

The editor’s note marks the second time in recent weeks that the Times has published jarring, after-the-fact disclosures regarding conflicts. On July 3, it informed readers that it had quoted the agent of a reporter for a story on books regarding former president Trump. The quote was removed.

The Times on Wednesday announced that Clifford Levy, a deputy managing editor at the paper, is assuming a “new role to expand our Standards operation and safeguard the integrity of our journalism in all its forms.” How about starting out with an investigation into the conflicts created by book deals?