There are ethical conflicts you can avoid and ones you can’t avoid.
The New York Observer has seemingly chosen to avoid one it can’t really avoid.
Donald Trump is the father-in-law of the publisher Jared Kushner, who is married to a Trump daughter, Ivanka.
The paper has made a solid reputation by covering wealth, real estate and lots of politics in New York. The presidential campaign would seemingly be right up its alley, especially with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton of New York and at least two New Yorkers running on the Republican side: Trump and former New York Gov. George Pataki.
Trump is, in a sense, all that the paper embodies: an important, if controversial, member of the city’s propertied class. But Ken Kurson, the paper’s editor, indicates that after talking it over with many people whom he respects, he’s decided to essentially take a pass on covering the father-in-law of his boss.
“The appearance of a conflict was unavoidable,” he writes.
It’s the wrong decision.
If they want to be taken seriously covering politics, you cover Trump. Make clear on each story that he’s related to the boss, fine. But cover him.
When 1,000 union production workers went on strike at the Chicago Tribune in 1985, I was the labor and legal affairs reporter.
The night that the walkout started, my boss called me into his office. “A lot of people won’t believe anything we write about our own strike,” said James Squires. “But you just go out and cover it like you would any other strike.”
I did and, all modesty aside, we earned plaudits. In fact, union leaders were soon leaking stories to me, an employee of the management they hated. They realized that we, in the newsroom, were trying to be straight.
It was the same thing with a rancorous, at times violent, strike at the New York Daily News in 1990. Tribune Co., parent of the Chicago Tribune, owned the Daily News.
I was dispatched to cover it because it was a great story. Again, members of multiple unions realized that I was a journalist, not a handmaiden of the employer with whom they were feuding.
By The Observer’s reasoning, I should have stayed away from both events.
In addition, the same rationale would have had the Chicago Tribune not cover the Chicago Cubs, which Tribune Co. owned for many years.
That was an inherent conflict, too, was it not? There were Tribune Co. and Cubs executives who thought the paper was too tough on the Cubs, too soft on the cross-town rival White Sox.
There are the conflicts you can avoid, like taking freebies, doing business with people whom you cover and using your role as a journalist to exact favors. Then there are those which you can’t duck if you’re really doing your job.
On the surface, the New York paper’s justification for essentially avoiding the current GOP frontrunner for the nation’s most important job seems vaguely high-minded.
It isn’t. It’s a rationalization for being spineless.