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Pogue’s slippery slope

David Pogue of the New York Times

David Pogue of the New York Times

Earlier today, Dr. Alex raised the musical question Is David Pogue a journalist?

The short answer is yes, despite what Pogue says. But the real question is deeper.

Pogue says he never claimed to be a reporter and that he didn’t go to journalism school. My undergraduate degree is in political science, but I’ve worked as a journalist for nearly 30 years.

But the fact that Pogue is a columnist and not a reporter also isn’t the point. The New York Times, like most other large newspapers, has an ethics policy that spells out the kind of freelance work Pogue and other employees are allowed to do under the terms of their employment. The policy clearly states that “Staff members must ensure that their freelance work does not interfere with their normal responsibilities.”

There’s also this:

A regular contribution to an outside enterprise may be permissible if it does not flow from the journalist’s regular responsibilities or interfere with them, and if it does not involve content owed to our company and its audiences. Examples of acceptable affiliations might be a city editor who writes a monthly column on fishing or a news photographer who has a modest studio business. Staff members considering such continuing ventures should confer with newsroom management.

Put another way: Don’t write outside pieces about the same topics you cover on a regular basis. This is a typical policy at most publications.

The catch here is that his editors get the final say. If they decided that Pogue’s extracurricular activities weren’t a conflict of interest, then he’s free to do as he pleases. You can question his personal ethics in this situation, and probably should, but I suspect that he’s followed the letter of the law in this case, if not the intent.

These policies exist for a reason and you’re seeing the consequences play out in this case. Expanding Pogue’s bio on the NYT site only muddies the waters. It doesn’t answer legitimate questions about conflict of interest. Those are the kinds of questions that go to the credibility of publications and that can be a slippery slope.

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2 Responses

  1. david pogue says:

    You write: “Pogue says he never claimed to be a reporter and that he didn’t go to journalism school”

    Unfortunately, you’ve fallen victim to a common pitfall: Parroting what the snarky bloggers say without checking out the facts!

    My oft-quoted line, “I’ve never called myself a ‘reporter.’ I’ve never been to journalism school”–was taken from a conversation on a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TOPIC! It came from a podcast interview about the aggressiveness of my interviewing style! NOT from a conversation about ethics.

    By taking a quote out of context like this, you make it sound as though “I’m not a reporter” was my response to the ethics charges, which of course is ridiculous. Here it is in writing: It doesn’t matter if I’m a reporter, a columnist, or a classified-ad editor. We are ALL 100% bound by the Times ethics guidelines, and I’ve never said otherwise!

    You can certainly find fault with the modern syndrome of newspaper columnists who have outside interests. But please don’t make your own journalistic mistake by using an out-of-context quote to make me look worse.


    • Chuck says:


      First, you’re correct: I am guilty of building on the work of another blogger without first checking their facts, which is probably my biggest gripe about bloggers in general. Had I also realized at the time I read the piece that it was written anonymously, I’m not sure I would have quoted it at all. I’m not a big fan of that kind of commentary.

      Second, as far as the context of your quotes is concerned, they were made during a conversation where ethics was the main question. The entire interview was conducted to allow you to respond to critical comments concerning ethics. And now that I’ve read the transcript of the TWiT interview, I appreciate your point of view, but I also see you made those statements at two different points in the conversation. I don’t think you meant it as a defense of the ethics questions, but I can also see how it could be read that way.

      Third, my comments on the topic were not intended to make you look worse. In fact, I thought I was being evenhanded by pointing out that your editors were ultimately responsible for making this call. As you said in the TWiT interview, they could avoid this kind of problem by having someone else write a review the few times a year when you’re about to publish a book on the same topic. Obviously, their reluctance to do that is because they know your voice is valued by your readers.

      In the end, I’m not a hater, David (if this is really you commenting — and I hope it is because I spent a lot of time writing this response). I’m convinced by the TWiT interview that you recognize there’s a problem (“I think there is clearly an evident and apparent conflict of interest …”) and I hope that you’ll continue to explore solutions.