Paul Farhi in the Washington Post: “Thomas Friedman’s columns prompt a different kind of ethical question for the New York Times”

From a Washington Post story by media reporter Paul Farhi headlined “Thomas Friedman’s columns prompt a different kind of ethical question for the New York Times”:

In two dozen opinion columns published by the New York Times over the past 15 years, Thomas Friedman has favorably cited the environmental organization Conservation International. He’s quoted its executives, employees and board members as experts on a variety of topics — from the coronavirus and biodiversity to Brazil’s drought and Madagascar’s soil erosion problem.

He’s traveled with the group’s scientists on excursions it organized to study fragile ecosystems in South America, Africa and Asia.

“Lost there, felt here,” he wrote in 2009, citing the group’s slogan — a reminder, he said, “that our natural world and climate constitute a tightly integrated system, and when species, forests and ocean life are depleted in one region, their loss will eventually be felt in another.”

What Friedman hasn’t divulged in any of his columns is that his family is a major financial supporter of Conservation International….Friedman’s family foundation has donated $5.9 million to the organization since 2007, including $1.25 million in 2015.

Those contributions raise a novel ethical question: Should a journalist — particularly one as distinguished and influential as Friedman — disclose his direct financial support of those he’s writing about?

The question is an unlikely twist on an issue that has occasionally ensnared other journalists. News organizations typically prohibit reporters and columnists from taking anything of value from those they write about, lest it corrupt or compromise what they write and report. The rules usually make no distinction between news reporters and opinion columnists, such as Friedman, the latter of whom are allowed to advocate for a cause or a point of view.

But giving money, particularly without notifying readers, is rarely addressed.

Few other journalists have the means to fund charities the way Friedman has. The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and best-selling author and his wife have been quiet benefactors, through their Ann B. and Thomas L. Friedman Family Foundation, of a long list of nonprofit groups engaged in education, environmental preservation and women’s health care, among other causes.

In all, the Friedmans have donated $27.9 million to nonprofit organizations since 2005, including several that Friedman has highlighted in his columns without mentioning his support.

A San Francisco community organizer, Michael Petrelis, raised concerns earlier this year about these contributions and Friedman’s lack of disclosure. During the Times Co.’s annual shareholder meeting, Petrelis questioned chairman and publisher A.G. Sulzberger about it.

His concern, as he described it: Would readers have a better understanding of Friedman’s published views on, say, Israeli-Palestinian issues, abortion or climate change, if they knew that he was contributing millions of dollars to organizations that favor a particular side? And is Friedman reflecting only the views of those he supports financially, to the exclusion of others?

Sulzberger referred Petrelis’s questions to subordinates who later replied that Friedman wasn’t obligated to divulge his contributions.

Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha reiterated that conclusion last month. She told The Post that although receiving money from an outside source might pose a conflict, “giving money to an organization doesn’t present the same issue.” Friedman isn’t receiving a personal benefit, she said, so “we see no ethical concern.”…

Petrelis hasn’t let the issue go. “Any exchange of money needs to be disclosed,” he said. “If Tucker Carlson had a charity and was giving money to the Proud Boys” — the far-right group with a history of violent acts — “I’d want to know that, and his viewers would want to know that. I don’t necessarily object to [Friedman’s] causes, but it’s just a simple matter of disclosing.”

Several journalism experts see the matter largely as Petrelis does.

“Readers have a right to know that these are organizations he’s invested in, just as if it was a stock he’d invested in,” said Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School. “The currency here is credibility and transparency.”

Such disclosures “help the reader understand that the writer does not have a neutral position regarding the special interest group,” said Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school. An opinion columnist arguably has a lower threshold of disclosure than a news reporter, she said, but “more information rather than no information gives perspective to the reader.”

Media ethicists remain concerned about transparency among journalist at a time when many Americans tell pollsters they don’t trust established news sources and some believe in error that journalists take money from sources to promote a certain point of view — an unethical practice that would get most journalists fired.

Friedman’s situation is different….In addition to Conservation International, Friedman has periodically written about other organizations that he’s supported without noting in print that he is a benefactor.

These include the SEED Foundation ($7.6 million in contributions), which operates boarding schools for children from low-income families; the Aspen Institute think tank ($935,000); and the Acumen Fund ($155,000), which invests in impoverished communities around the world….

At times, he’s offered limited disclosure — specifically, that his wife serves or has served on the board of some of the organizations he’s written about, such as Conservation International and the SEED Foundation. Ann Friedman is the daughter of one of the co-founders of a now-defunct company, General Growth Properties, that at one time was a leading developer of shopping centers.

He has also disclosed that others have donated to charities he’s connected with, though without mentioning his family’s donations. In columns last year mentioning Mike Bloomberg and AT&T, Friedman noted that both had donated to Planet Word, a literacy museum in Washington founded and headed by his wife. The Friedmans contributed $1.5 million to the museum over the past two years….

The closest ethical parallel to Friedman’s is the prohibition by most mainstream news organizations on their journalists contributing to political organizations and candidates.

MSNBC, for example, sanctioned “Morning Joe” co-host Joe Scarborough and then-host Keith Olbermann in 2010 for donations to various office-seekers. ABC News removed anchor George Stephanopoulos from moderating a candidate debate in 2015 after he acknowledged contributing to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s charitable foundation.

Journalists also aren’t supposed to give money to sources, such as contributing to the expenses of a needy person they’ve interviewed.

But policies about charitable contributions to nonprofit organizations aren’t as clear-cut. Most news organizations don’t ask their journalists to detail personal donations.

In Friedman’s case, simple disclosure might not be enough, said Edward Wasserman, a journalism professor and the former dean of UC Berkeley’s journalism school. Any substantial exchange of money involving a journalist has the power to corrupt, he said, or at least create the appearance of it.

“The real solution,” Wasserman said, “is to avoid writing about the organization or the issues it’s prominently engaged in.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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