by Larry Elkin
It is no surprise that a New York Times media columnist would write, and not in glowing terms, about the Tribune Company’s plan to pay $66 million in bonuses to executives who led the company into bankruptcy.
It is a newsworthy item. The company’s creditors support the bonus plan, which is supposed to help retain managers who can turn Tribune’s fortunes around. But there is vigorous opposition from the bankruptcy trustee and the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents newsroom employees at the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and other Tribune papers.
David Carr pulled no punches in his Oct. 5 column. “You’d expect them to walk the plank, or at the very least, spend a good stretch of time in the naughty corner,” he wrote. “But you wouldn’t expect the top 700 managers to collect $66 million in bonuses.”
Carr acerbically described real estate tycoon Sam Zell as a “grave digger” for leading the leveraged buyout that saddled Tribune with debt it could not sustain. Carr recited what he called “a litany of infamies” surrounding the deal, and noted that Tribune has laid off 2,000 employees since the buyout.
Fair enough. Carr did provide management’s explanation for the bonus plan, though most of the column gives much more prominent treatment to the union criticism. “It is sort of along the same lines as the Bank of America and A.I.G. bonuses, except it is not taxpayer money,” Carr quotes Cet Parks, executive director of the Baltimore-Washington Newspaper Guild.
There is one notable detail that Carr left out of his column. The Newspaper Guild represents employees at most major American dailies, with the prominent exception of The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times has a Guild newsroom. Carr himself may well be a Guild member, though management personnel and freelancers typically would not be. I do not know Carr’s employment status. Also, it is possible to work in some Guild newsrooms without formally being a Guild member, though the employee still pays dues to the union.
Disclosure gets a lot of attention in financial journalism these days. Analysts and money managers who are interviewed for print and broadcast routinely say whether they have an investment position in companies they comment about. If Bloomberg L.P. discusses a company that owns an interest in Bloomberg, this fact is noted. Likewise, when The Wall Street Journal covers Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp., it points out that News Corp. owns the Journal.
But The Times never seems to mention its own employees’ labor affiliation when covering any labor matter – not even one, as in Carr’s case, that involves the journalists’ own union. The only exceptions I have seen have been stories about The Times’ negotiations with its employees. In other words, if employees are not writing about themselves and their company, their labor affiliations are nobody’s business.
I think this is wrong. Credibility is hard to come by and easy to lose. Too many people already assume journalists are prone to bias or worse. Lack of disclosure ultimately feeds those suspicions.
It also makes it easier for journalists to fool themselves into dismissing their own biases. I know this from personal experience. I myself once was a member of the Wire Service Guild, which is the Newspaper Guild unit that represents Associated Press employees. I covered all sorts of labor stories, including a Montana state AFL-CIO convention. My stories never noted my Guild membership, nor the fact that The AP was a Guild shop.
I told myself that I could put my own union membership aside in covering labor matters. I convinced myself that I had no choice but to join the Guild, since I had to pay dues anyway, even though I could have opted out of formal membership.
As a crusading young reporter, my sense of ethics was so finely tuned that I would not join a political party or even sign a petition. I left a dream assignment in Washington when I got married because my wife, a professional marketer, probably could not have found work there without creating potential conflicts with my work. (I did not suffer professionally; The AP moved me to New York and let me cover federal courts.)
But, in retrospect, all this was wrong. I was a union member covering union matters. My audience had a right to know this fact. It might not have changed what I wrote, nor how I was perceived. But disclosure would have been honest and fair. It also would have made me feel better about what I was doing. I remember listening to the rah-rah speeches at that AFL-CIO convention and thinking that it felt strange to actually belong to something I was covering.
I emailed Carr last week to ask whether The Times has a policy on disclosing Guild representation of its employees. I also asked whether he is a Guild member, and whether he believes he should have noted this fact in his column. I have not received a reply.
These are tough times in the newspaper business. Bad management and a bad economy deserve some of the blame, but not all. Bad journalism plays a part. Arrogance and bias make for some pretty bad journalism, and I get a healthy measure of both in my daily New York Times.Jo
Larry Elkin is President and Founder of Palisades Hudson Financial Group LLC.