Ethics Hero: The New York Times

The most transparent and open presidency in history, or so we were once promised, just shattered that illusion further by inviting a dozen White House reporters to a lunch with President Obama. The New York Times, to its credit, did the ethical thing and declined.

You see, the reporters were required to promise that anything they saw and heard at the lunch would be “off the record,” even, presumably, information that the “public has a right to know.” That promise creates an ethical dilemma and a conflict of interest, and it was one the Times properly and bravely declined to make. An Administration that did more than pay lip service to its transparency pledge would never ask them to make it.

President Obama has had fewer press conferences than any recent president over a comparable period, despite a tenure filled with unusually difficult policies. Trading veal cordon bleu and white wine for press silence is a poor substitute for helping the news media do its job, which is informing the public. I wonder: if something critically important was revealed at the lunch, would these reporters break their promise (with the same sense of righteousness that they help leakers break laws) and publish what they knew, or would they treat genuine news as their little private secret among friends? Since the Obama White House only invites “friendly” (read: biased, progressive, or habitually supportive) reporters to its “off the record lunches,” I wouldn’t bet on the public good taking priority over  ideology and self-preservation: who wants to break a promise to the President?

That’s why the New York Times did the right thing by staying away. It is reassuring to know that the Gray Lady still is capable of living up to its role model reputation, and is keeping a grip on its integrity, even when the White House is urging her to loosen it..

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