5 Abusing Public Trust: Brooks, Gladwell, and Journalistic Ethics

Tucker Sechrest

Do journalists have special obligations when communicating with the public?

Before reading: Should journalists be barred from endorsing brands or products? Draw and label the scale below in your notes. Place yourself more toward the left side of the scale if you think journalists should be free to support whomever and whatever they wish. Place yourself more toward the right side of the scale if you think journalists should never be allowed to offer endorsements of any type.

line with bisecting parallel lines at the start, end, and middle
Stakeholder Map Prompt: Using the instructions from “How to Create and Use a Stakeholder Map,” create a stakeholder map in your notes, either individually or with your class. Show the topic, the subjects affected, and possible outcomes based on the ideas introduced at the beginning of this article and your own background knowledge of the topic.

Buzzfeed reported in February 2021 that David Brooks, well-known opinion columnist for The New York Times, and Malcolm Gladwell, long-time New Yorker journalist, received financial compensation for lending their journalistic credibility to different corporate ventures. Brooks used his column on multiple occasions to talk up the Aspen Institute’s “Weave” initiative, a project to which he had significant financial ties – a fact he failed to disclose to his audience or his editors. Meanwhile, Gladwell features prominently in a 2021 General Motors ad campaign. To many, these celebrity endorsements may not seem like grave offenses; Brooks and Gladwell simply used their notoriety for financial advantage like anyone else might. On what grounds could we possibly object? Surely it would be unfair to demand that journalists be held to a higher standard than their peers and forgo all those financial incentives that so many other professions enjoy.

In fact, it’s often thought that over-policing conflicts of interest leads to absurd results. We don’t want to demand that journalists be so disinterested as to require their withdrawal from public life. We would be doing ourselves a terrible disservice to bar those often best-informed and civically-minded from public work. We shouldn’t bind the hands of those best-positioned to do the most good. Everyone should have a stake in the social projects of their communities and feel free to get their hands dirty.

Following this line of defense, Brooks and Gladwell’s endorsements are described as the inevitable extension of their own personal hobbies. Gladwell speaks of his private passion for autos (a self-professed “MASSIVE car nut”), while Brooks considers Weave nothing more than a pet project. Their advocacy, then, is simply a consequence of their deep connection with these specific enterprises. There’s no reason to assume nefarious intent; these writers were simply overwhelmed with excitement and couldn’t wait to share the good news with the rest of us.

But there’s a significant distinction that separates championing a cause from promoting a product. Believing in something and rallying support behind it doesn’t require reducing one’s audience to corporate marks. Journalists shouldn’t sully their reputations by engaging in manipulation. Confronted by these allegations, Gladwell has claimed that if he’s guilty of being bought, then all of journalism has been similarly corrupted due to its reliance on advertising dollars to sustain itself. There is, however, a great difference between the banner ads adorning a periodical’s website and journalists throwing their weight behind a brand. When reporters start delivering the testimonials, the line meant to establish journalistic independence gets blurred and the waters get muddied.

That said, criticism of Brooks and Gladwell’s behavior tends to draw our focus to the wrong thing. Failure to disclose isn’t the most damning sin Brooks committed, and his after-the-fact admissions can’t rectify the true harm. Likewise, the potential for conflicts of interest doesn’t adequately capture the risk Gladwell’s paid endorsement poses. Instead, these actions, at bottom, violate the cardinal rule of journalism: Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, and its first loyalty is to citizens.

It would be naive to think Gladwell’s corporate partners fail to appreciate what they are buying. Gladwell’s position is decidedly different from that of his commercial co-stars. He is not a mere entertainer; the value of his endorsement isn’t based on his ability to define what “cool” is. People give weight to Gladwell’s words because he promotes himself (and is promoted by institutions of journalism) as having the inside track on truth. Gladwell’s work weaves a complex story uniting social science and statistics — connections that are unintelligible to the rest of us. What he is selling is a unique capacity for truth-telling. His trustworthiness depends on the public’s faith in the profession. His credibility and the credibility of the institutions he represents (just like Brooks’s) relies on transparency, accuracy, and unerring loyalty to the public. We believe him insofar as we believe journalism aims to benefit we, the people. To serve another master is to break this sacred bond. It is fidelity to this purpose – pursuing truth in the people’s name – that separates the devoted journalist from the faithless mercenary or fanatical partisan.

This is hardly the first time Gladwell has come under scrutiny for failing to respect the firewall we’ve erected to divide truth-telling journalists from marketing shills. But whether it’s speaking engagements, product placements, or celebrity endorsements, the rules of neutrality never change. The Society for Professional Journalists code of ethics is uncompromising in its guidelines about preserving journalistic independence: “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” The profession’s ethical code exists to defend the virtue of the entire field from those who would undercut it. For journalism to capably serve its necessary functions – as public forum, watchdog, and voice for the voiceless – it must be above suspicion.

It would be easy to dismiss these actions as isolated, one-off transgressions, but the consequences extend far beyond the responsible parties. These dealings undermine not only Brooks and Gladwell’s credibility, as well as that of The New York Times and The New Yorker, but also erode confidence in the profession as a whole. They threaten the finite, shared resource of public trust — a good that we are in greater need of now than ever.

Respond to the following questions in your notes and through classroom discussion.
  1. How can we tell the difference between those activities which are acceptable and those which will “compromise integrity or damage credibility”? Who should be the ultimate judge: journalists, news organizations, the public?
  2. Is Gladwell right? Are news agencies equally corrupted by their reliance on advertising dollars? Aren’t journalists just cashing in the same way that their employers are? Is there really any difference?
  3. Isn’t it unfair to ask that journalists turn down these financial incentives that professionals in other industries enjoy? Are there other kinds of work that should be similarly restricted?


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