The New York Times' Media Columnist Sits in a Bloomberg ChairS

New York Times media columnist David Carr has a lot of friends. I'm one of them. I would generally agree that, as the Wire put it this morning, he is "well-loved and respected," and that his column is often "one of the most thoughtful and critical perspectives into journalism." Likewise with the Boston Globe's assessment that he is a "star." These encomia were delivered on the occasion of Carr's ascent to an endowed chair at Boston University's College of Communication, from which chair he will continue to cover the media beat in his weekly Times column. That chair is endowed to the tune of $1.66 million by the chairman of a media company that Carr purports to cover. There's probably a column in that.

From the Globe:

The new professorship was created with a $1.66 million gift from Andy Lack, 1968 BU graduate, member of the BU board of trustees, and chairman of Bloomberg Media Group, said BU. The family of fellow trustee Alan Leventhal made a matching gift of more than $830,000.

The Bloomberg Media Group is a division of Bloomberg LP. Bloomberg LP is a huge media entity owned by one of the wealthiest men on the planet. It is as such a rather substantial player in the news world. The New York Times writes about it a lot. David Carr, in his capacity as a media critic for the Times, writes about it a lot. It is in the news, right now, for allegedly spiking a critical story about a Chinese tycoon over fears that the Chinese government might interfere with Bloomberg's terminal sales—its bread and butter—in retaliation. After complaints about the spiking surfaced, the reporter on the piece was cashiered.

That's a pretty good media story—corruption of news values, silenced reporters, money defeating truth. It's the kind of story the Times covers. It's the kind of story Carr covers. And he did, along with three other Times reporters, two weeks ago—during which time, he tells me, he was "deep in conversation with Boston University" about assuming the Lack-endowed chair.

Another good media story was the revelation earlier this year that Bloomberg reporters used secret data culled from the use of its terminals—which are installed in the offices of virtually every financial institution on the planet—to report out stories. Carr wrote about that one, too. (He's also written about Lack's decision to hire the Atlantic's Justin Smith as CEO of Bloomberg Media, and other various and sundry Bloombergiana.)

Carr doesn't appear to have pulled any punches in either case. But it was interesting to learn from Carr that, in April, just a few weeks before he wrote about the terminal-snooping, he had met with Lack for lunch to discuss his potential role in occupying that $1.66 million chair. Here's how the Globe described the meeting—and Carr's interest in taking the gig:

But then Lack had lunch with Carr and found the columnist himself to be receptive. Carr — known for a colorful and frank persona, having written a book about his drug addiction — said he was motivated in part to help put his 17-year-old daughter through college and was also interested in turning his 30 to 40 speaking and teaching engagements each year into a more coherent whole.

As for his work on the China story, Carr tells me via email that the relationship with Lack and Bloomberg was enough of a red flag for him to alert his editors, who told him not to contact Lack for the story.

I told both Bill Brink and Matt Purdy, the two eds on it, about the BU/Lack thing. It was decided I could not talk to Lack about it and I did not.

I reported elsewhere inside and outside of the building as part of the team. Filed a 2,000 word memo to Amy Chozick who wrote it all up.

So what we have here is a media columnist, one who regularly awards plaudits and demerits for adherence or lack thereof to standards of professional conduct—here he is tsk-tsking us for writing about Shepard Smith's professional and romantic life—taking a side-job that will liberate him from a grueling speaking schedule, for which he will be indirectly compensated by the chairman of a company he covers.

And what if that chairman decides, in the event, that he'd rather not continue to subsidize the work of a reporter who writes about his company? Carr told me he doesn't know whether Lack would have the authority to fire him. Tom Fiedler, the dean of Boston University's School of Communication, said hiring and firing is squarely in the school's hands: "The decision to hire or fire is entirely up to the university. It is far removed from the funding." But what if the source of that funding were to suddenly dry up? "That's a question I don't have the answer to," Fiedler told me. "Typically, the way these things work is, once a donor comes up with a proposal, there's a schedule the university sets up for the donations. By the time I get involved, enough of that has come through to make the hire. There's a real firewall."

That firewall, of course, isn't sacrosanct. No less an authority than the New York Times has reported in the past about the efforts of pharmaceutical firms, for instance, to use endowed chairs as "blandishments" to influence medical schools and their faculty.

So we are trusting that firewall to keep Carr from being blandished. He was characteristically blunt with me when I asked him whether those Boston University checks, and their ultimate source, will complicate his job:

if I decide it was screwing up my job, which I love right now, I'd have to let go. doubt it will be a problem though. really like these guys and Lack. had other offers, chose this one, mostly because how OK they are with me still doing my job. who knows it's always hugs at the start. but I like the dean, andy didn't try to get an arm on me during bloomberg story, and my eds seem ok with it. jill a. [Jill Abramason, executive editor of the Times] was my first reference on the position. for others to judge tho.

The Times' ethics policy doesn't prohibit arrangements like Carr's. It explicitly permits reporters to accept "speaking fees, honorariums, expense reimbursement and free transportation...from educational or other nonprofit groups." Its authors may not have contemplated a situation where one of the Times' reporters is employed by way of an arrangement with an educational institution that is funded by a private individual within that reporter's area of coverage.

I'm not big on media ethics as some sort of electrified grid that upstanding reporters must march through. But the New York Times, as an institution, most certainly is. And like Carr, I agree that disclosures of potential conflicts are often in order. Here he is a few years back (correctly) scolding Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter for insufficiently surfacing his myriad relationships with the Hollywood institutions his magazine covers:

[A]fter a $100,000 payment from a movie studio to the magazine's editor, Graydon Carter, made headlines, the company issued new ethical guidelines.... Perhaps with this policy in mind, the magazine noted in its selection of Creative Artists Agency for its power list that ''a son of the magazine's editor was an intern at the agency this summer.''

It was a good start, but there were a few others that might have merited inclusion: Barry Diller, No.8 on the list, helped Mr. Carter finance ''The Kid Stays in the Picture,'' his documentary about the producer Robert Evans. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, co-chairmen of Miramax Pictures, No.22 on the list, bought a book from Mr. Carter and three others about Spy magazine, Mr. Carter's alma mater, for $1 million.

No.25, Robert C. Wright, heads NBC Universal, which paid Mr. Carter the $100,000 for the idea of turning the book ''A Beautiful Mind'' into a movie. Agents at Creative Artists Agency, No. 40, circulated a movie proposal from Mr. Carter and a partner earlier this year. James A. Wiatt, chief executive of the William Morris Agency, No.42, also brokered the Spy book deal. Brian Grazer, co-chairman of Imagine Entertainment and 46th on the list, was the producer of ''A Beautiful Mind'' and approved the payment to Mr. Carter.

At the end of the day, we either trust that reporters are not trying to get one over on us, or play an angle, or we don't. Carr has spent a career cultivating that trust, and he doesn't act like a guy with anything to hide. But I would have expected the guy who dinged Graydon Carter for not disclosing that someone circulated his proposal to mention the lunch with a Bloomberg executive that, as it happened, ended up taking care of his daughter's college tuition.

[Image via Getty]