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David Cay Johnston Explains It All
My failed (and unsolicited) ethics lesson.


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David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times tax reporter and self-styled press critic, is not pleased with the journalistic ethics I displayed in my pundit-payola column the other week. Although in that piece I described turning down a $1,000-cash-for-comment bribe, apparently I’d still violated some sort of code by relating that story here before the Times had a chance to get it into print.

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The “Cathy Seipp anecdote,” as I heard it became known in-house, seems to have been ruined for the Times by Cathy Seipp having the gall to use it in a Cathy Seipp column first; their story was evidently supposed to run about three weeks ago and so far has not. Johnston hadn’t been one of the reporters working on the piece, nor, as far as I know, did he have anything to do with it.

But apparently his status as a press critic–Johnston has written for Columbia Journalism Review, and is a frequent crank on the Romenesko letters page–obligated him to weigh in. So he felt moved to lecture me via e-mail (subject line: “Gosh, Catherine”), press-critic-to-press-critic, that my scooping his paper by using an incident that had happened to me, in my own column, was “not honorable.”

As a press critic myself, Johnston told me, I should have known this. Also, I’d better not tell anyone about his unsolicited opinion. That was a secret.

I have no patience for these imposed confidentiality deals. Over the years, various journalists besides Johnston have sent me e-mails that basically say this:

Hello. Although you have not asked for my opinion, I would like to tell you what I think of you. But I suspect, on some level, that this makes me sound like a pompous git. So you are hereby ordered to keep my insults to you secret. If you disobey, you have violated our non-agreement and are therefore unethical.
So I put my e-mail exchange with Johnston on my blog, where, after I told him to go take his Metamucil already and stop e-mailing me, he began posting comments defending his position. Eventually he stopped that too (presumably because his supervisors at the Times didn’t like how he was representing the paper) and began privately e-mailing some of my regular commenters instead.

Some were annoyed, but some were understandably flattered that a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter was corresponding with them. And really, you do wonder about the spare time members of the MSM have on their hands these days.

Am I a press critic? I guess so, in the sense that I’ve written fairly regularly about media over the years. But not in the David Cay Johnston sense, which apparently means you’ve joined some kind of rarefied society with arcane and complicated rules, and if you fail to obey them properly you have to turn in your special press-critic decoder ring.

Johnston’s style of press criticism also seems to bestow a special right to pound your fist on the table at people who disagree with you–like poor Daniel Okrent, hired by the Times as “public editor” in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. (Johnston was angry that Okrent had responded to a reader unhappy with a business story before consulting with its reporter or editor. “Sometimes you have to treat others like the Russians,” he told the Wall Street Journal at the time, explaining his behavior.)

In his notes to me, Johnston also seemed to think it was a secret that the Times, along with practically every major publication in the country, had been working on a pundit-payola story. I should not have let this cat out of the bag via my NRO column, he informed me, because so doing did not “advance journalism.”

He hoped I would “seriously ponder” my misdeeds, and added loftily that “several other reporters, knowing of my writing on these matters” had e-mailed him my column. (Presumably so they could benefit from his wisdom.) I responded that I disagreed with his definition of “dishonorable” to mean “doesn’t give a crap what some self-important prig at the New York Times thinks,” but that he was free to print out my reply and paste it on every bathroom wall in the building for all I cared.

“And I’ll tell you something else you can forward to any interested parties awaiting your opinion before you roll it up and stick it up [your a**],” I added. “When journalists go from keeping secrets about their sources to expecting sources to keep secrets about THEM … then something in the press has begun to stink with self-importance…you might consider spending some time pondering that.”

What I’ve been pondering, in the wake of this incident, is that essentially all a journalist has is his judgment–the ability to quickly analyze information and evaluate the quality of a source, among other things. Blogging and e-mail can now make that judgment (or lack thereof) instantly apparent.

Take this exchange between Johnston and NRO contributor Donald Luskin, who’d negatively reviewed Johnston’s book on the tax code. I’m certainly no tax expert, and before all this would have just shrugged, with no idea who’s right. (Although I wonder about anyone who describes his own work, as Johnston did in his response to Luskin, as “enterprising, fearless and rounded.”)

But now I know that the New York Times tax reporter is sanctimonious and makes foolish and unfair requests. So I wouldn’t trust his judgment on the tax code any more than I would on media matters.

In one of Johnston’s last e-mails to me, he considered and then declined extending an invitation to one of his “well-attended lectures” about media ethics, because he realized I would “choose to learn nothing.” This rescinded offer left me somewhat less than heartbroken with disappointment, but I liked how he decided I was his student anyway: “Seipp grades for honesty: F and F,” Johnston informed me. “Seipp grades for accuracy: F and F.”

Gosh, Miss Brooks, I’m sorry I failed your class. The thing is, though, I don’t remember enrolling.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.



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