Tested loyalties: When love and work collide

Conflicts of interest caused by romance affect credibility of a news operation


February 06, 2005|By Abigail Tucker and Chris Kaltenbach | Abigail Tucker and Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

In his final column for The New York Times, former Hollywood reporter Bernard Weinraub included a startling confession: That perhaps he should have stopped writing about the film industry after marrying a powerful studio executive.

"Clearly, I stayed too long on my beat, clinging to a notion that I could sidestep conflicts of interest by avoiding direct coverage of Sony," he wrote last Sunday of his 1997 marriage to Amy Pascal, who would later become the chairwoman of Sony Pictures.

Weinraub switched coverage areas several years after the fact, but critics maintained that this was too late, and in the column, Weinraub expressed regret that his marriage may have sullied his newspaper's reputation.

Although mea culpas like this are relatively rare, increasingly, the scenario isn't. In an era of two-career couples and power households, journalists sometimes are wedded literally to their beats, and are forced to weigh romantic attachments against professional obligations.

Most news organizations have formal policies to guide employees, but these also rely on individuals to self-regulate. That's why Robert Steele, the senior ethics scholar at The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., occasionally finds himself playing a journalistic Dr. Phil, fielding calls from reporters who are worried that their affairs with newsmakers might compromise their work.

"What do I do now?" they beseech him, Steele says. "My spouse has just become the press secretary for a congressional candidate."

Or: "The woman I'm now dating is a very influential adviser" for so-and-so. "Should I dump her? My job? Both?"

Such questions are actually quite serious, Steele said. Personal attachments can be as insidious as bribes, although often the reporter is less aware that his or her integrity may have been compromised.

"It's not easy to determine when you're being co-opted by your own self-interest or the interest of another," he said.

Affairs aplenty

The industry is studded with stories of reporters whose amours spill into their assigned beats, or even started on the job. Take Suzy Wetlaufer, then the top editor at The Harvard Business Review, who had a romantic liaison with former General Electric chairman Jack Welch after writing a story about him.

Todd Purdum, a White House reporter with The New York Times, married Dee Dee Myers, President Bill Clinton's one-time press secretary, amid much muttering (though Myers resigned from the administration shortly after Purdum took over the beat). And Maria Shriver - who has since stepped down from her job as a reporter for NBC's Dateline - continued to work for several months after her husband, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, took office in 2003.

Rem Reider, editor of the American Journalism Review, said that these relationships are almost always unacceptable.

"The goal is to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest because the reputation of the newspaper is on the line if the reader perceives that a relationship is affecting" the reporting process, he said.

"Why take the chance by doing something that invites questions?" he asked. "It seems to me it's a price not worth paying."

But Jeffrey Dvorkin, the president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, journalists who serve as in-house watchdogs at media organizations, maintained the opposite.

To assume "that a reporter is unable to do a story because of who he or she is married to is wrong," said Dvorkin, who also handles fairness issues at National Public Radio. "I think we're capable of doing two things at once, of having a personal life and being professional."

Often, a compromise can be reached in consultation with editors, who may decide to alter the reporter's responsibilities. The Times' ethics policy, implemented in 2003, years after Weinraub left his movie beat, states that reporters must always disclose questionable romantic relationships to high-ranking editors. The management then reacts on a case-by-case basis: in some instances doing nothing, in others, pulling the reporter from stories or reassigning him completely.

The Sun has a more broadly worded policy that warns against "close personal" relationships that may pose a conflict.

"If there's the appearance of a conflict, you don't do it," said Tim Franklin, the newspaper's editor. "It's that simple."

Seeking advice

While newsroom codes are helpful, Steele urges journalists to seek guidance from objective institutions like Poynter.

Of course, when Steele dispenses advice, he speaks from experience: While working as a television news manager in Maine in the 1970s, his then-wife was the head of public information for the University of Maine.

"We did our best to have an understanding about things we would or would not talk about personally that would have put either one of us in a compromising position," he said. "At least in hindsight, I don't remember any significant problems. Maybe we were just naive enough to negotiate those shoals without any kind of shipwrecks."

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