So here’s a question for the Paper of Record: Can a reporter ethically accept a gift from a company he covers if the reporter gives it to a family member, or a friend? We ask because superstar tech reporter Nick Bilton admitted to doing so—or at least attempting to—on last week’s episode of Leo Laporte’s "This Week in Tech" podcast. Here’s what Bilton said:
Nick Bilton: So I actually was given [a Blackberry phone] as a promotion, I'm not allowed to take these things, so I was given one in promotion for some event, and I was like, I can't keep this, so I called my sister, I was like do you want it, she's like no, I called my brother-in-law, asked if he wanted it, no, I literally could not give it away.
Leo Laporte: Yours probably looks like it's never been used, it's worth $87, but you, ethically you can't sell it.
Bilton: Ethically you can't do anything with it. Do you want it?
Laporte: No! Who would want it?
The Times is notoriously ruthless about enforcing its rigid ethics policy, going so far as to fire Critical Shopper columnist Mike Albo after he attended an unrelated junket sponsored by JetBlue and Thrillist. (The episode forms the basis of Albo’s play The Junket, now on stage at Dixon Place in New York City.) And Albo was just a freelancer, not a staff reporter.
Albo was fired for accepting things of value for himself. And the Times’ ethics policy says reporters “may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other inducements from any individuals or organizations covered by the Times.” Bilton—assuming he wasn't embellishing for a joke at Blackberry's expense—seems to believe that “regifting a garbage phone to your sister” is ethically distinct from “accepting” such a gift for oneself. And he’s right. But the policy itself seems to make clear that sharing the wealth with your loved ones isn’t a sanctioned option: “Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation.”
It’s evident here that Bilton understands the wording but not the spirit of his employers’ ethical expectations. (“Ethically, you can’t do anything with it.”) And he didn’t actually consummate a transaction that the Times, to judge by its policy, would regard as ethically dubious—no one wanted the phone. But what if it were an iPhone, and his sister wanted it? Or a PlayStation? Would it be OK to slip that to a relative? A friend? Maybe in lieu of a Christmas gift? A Times spokesperson declined to answer that question. (Bilton wouldn’t comment for the record.)
In this instance, though, the Times policy may have an answer. It exempts “trinkets of nominal value, say, $25 or less, such as a mug or a cap with a company logo.” Which a Blackberry basically is.
[Video via This Week in Tech]