Ethics takes a holiday: Newsweek, New York Times writers in swag orgy

In these lean times for journalists, the temptation to live large with an all-expenses-paid vacation and some high-grade swag is harder than ever to resist -- even if it means skirting the company ethics policy.

Writers for Newsweek and The New York Times (NYT) were among the 150 guests who enjoyed a free trip to Jamaica last weekend, courtesy of the consumer e-newsletter Thrillist and JetBlue (JBLU), among a host of other sponsors. Those guests received a round-trip flight from JFK International to Montego Bay and two nights at the Iberostar Rose Hall resort, where they had beachfront balcony rooms and personal butlers, and "overstuffed gift bags ... filled with T-shirts, sunglasses" and other goodies, according to this writeup of the weekend by one participant.
After learning that one of its reporters, Kurt Soller, had gone on the junket, The Washington Post Co. (WPO)'s Newsweek quickly concluded that his weekend in Jamaica violated the magazine's ethics guidelines. "We will be reimbursing Thrillist for the trip," a spokesman says.

The Times took a more lenient line on its writer, Mike Albo, a humorist and performer who writes the paper's "Critical Shopper" column every other Thursday. A Times spokeswoman said Albo "is a freelancer and was not on assignment for The Times, which he made clear to the organizers of the trip. So we do not see any violation of our rules." (Update: See below for the Times's revised statement.)

But a careful reading of the paper's stringent ethics policy suggests that Albo transgressed the spirit, if not the letter, of the guidelines. The policy expressly forbids accepting "free or discounted transportation and lodging" and "gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom." Those passages are directed at staffers, but further down, the policy decrees that freelancers "should accept the same ethical standards as staff members as a condition of their assignments for us. If they violate these standards, they should be denied further assignments."

Whether The Times officially frowns on such things, Albo himself seemed to know the junket was journalistically questionable. On Saturday, Albo Tweeted, "im in jamaica. pullin into giant city-resort. photogs taking our pics often. i wld feel gross abt all this if i wasnt so poor." (Albo didn't repond to email and phone messages.)

This isn't the first time Thrillist has corrupted the tender pink minds of Manhattan's media elite. Last year, it flew staffers for CNN, Fox News, the New York Post and the New York Daily News, among others, to Las Vegas for a similar bacchanal filled with free toiletries and consumer electronics. After a gentle scolding, the cable networks promised to reimburse the sponsors; the tabloids made no such redress.

Update, 5:52 p.m.: Several hours after this story was published, the New York Times spokeswoman contacted me with a revised statement:

After a further review of the details, we do have concerns about Mike Albo's participation in the Jamaica trip organized by Thrillist. To the extent feasible, we apply our strict ethical standards to all Times contributors, and accepting free trips and other giveaways is at odds with those standards. We will be discussing the situation further with Mr. Albo and his editors at The Times.

Update 2, 10/22/09: An earlier version of this story noted that Gideon Yago, host of the IFC Media Project, was also on the trip. In retrospect, mentioning him in this context wasn't very fair, since Yago, unlike Soller and Albo, wasn't violating his employer's ethics guidelines. If I was going to mention him, I should at least have sought his comment, which I failed to do. Gideon, my apologies.
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