While We’re Discussing Ethics in Cultural Journalism…

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Yes, you’re right, so don’t say it. That fine blogger Chloe Veltman wrote an insightful piece last week on what it means to be an ethical cultural journalist in the era of the “journalist entrepreneur,” and, a full week late, I’d like to offer some comments on it. Go ahead, call me a parrot. I won’t squawk.

First, observe how deftly Veltman defines the term “journalist entrepreneur”:

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a media person who decides to step out on his or her own and develop a new arts journalism project without the financial backing of any existing organization

The subject in general and Veltman’s definition specifically are near and dear to my heart because, for more than two years, this is precisely what I have been up to. The Clyde Fitch Report wasn’t created as a business or a revenue stream or a funding model; anyone who knows me knows perfectly well that I wrote a grand total of five posts during the first month, then took seven months off before committing to it. But that was all very 2006 and 2007, and tough economic circumstances tend to make willing entrepreneurs, and aspiring entrepreneurs, out of us all.

In my case — and at the risk of some skeleton being hauled out my closet — I come to the discussion of ethics with years of work as a traditional journalist in my past. I know what the rules used to be, what they are, what they will be, and, as with any good journalist, how to successfully get around them. I was piqued by Veltman citing the idea of “major media organizations” forbidding “employees from going on press junkets” because the arts and entertainment journalism that I know and pillory is absolutely predicated on the idea, for example, of accepting complimentary tickets for a play in exchange for promises or suggestions of reviews, features or some other manifestation of print or digital ink. Perhaps a few “major media organizations” can still fund all expenses, but they’re so rare in the wake of the recession that the very idea seems quaint. Instead, there are balances struck. My former employer paid for me to attend the Humana Festival of New American Plays each year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky (that is, airfare and hotel), but I was comped for every performance I attended and, yes, I did review every play I saw.

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More pertinent is the question of what the “journalist entrepreneur” must be aware of in order to maintain credibility — and to avoid clashing with the law, vis a vis the Federal Trade Commission’s 81-page guidelines, issued in late 2009, concerning bloggers and what constitutes an “endorsement.” I haven’t a clue who has time to read the entire document (I have not), but it should be noted that the Harvard Law Review, in April 2010, pronounced the FTC’s new guidelines to be unconstitutional.

Quoting from the Law Review:

…In the interest of providing consumers with full disclosure, the Guides require bloggers to disclose any “material connection[s]” they have with producers of any products that they “endorse” on their blogs. A “material connection” includes not only monetary compensation, but also any free good received by the blogger – even if that good was provided unsolicited, with no conditions attached, for the purpose of allowing the blogger to review the product. Yet a constitutional analysis of unpaid blogger endorsements shows that such endorsements are not commercial speech — which receives reduced constitutional protection — but rather noncommercial speech entitled to full First Amendment protection. Not only do the Guides burden bloggers’ protected speech, they also create an unfair double standard by exempting legacy media from the Guides’ disclosure requirements. Therefore, the Guides should be ruled unconstitutional as applied to bloggers.

I’m even later to the discussion of the FTC’s rules than to Veltman’s discussion of ethics. Nevertheless, I keep thinking about the generations-long tradition of giving complimentary tickets to theater critics and whether it’s settled in terms of how the new guidelines will apply. This much we know: there has been plenty of speculation in the media involving high-profile figures in the entertainment industry possibly running afoul of the FTC. Exhibit A: Deadline Hollywood blogger/terror Nikki Finke — an example of the “journalist entrepreneur” if there ever was one.

(And now, a juicy digression. In researching the FTC’s rules and who may or may not have run afoul of them, I came upon a reminder of the fact that theater critic John Simon — formerly of New York magazine, formerly of Bloomberg News — is now a blogger. No doubt Simon is paying special attention to blogging ethics after saying this on Theater Talk last June:

No matter how wrongheaded a critic may be, he or she’s always better than the bloggers. The bloggers are the vermin of this society.

To which I say: welcome to the ranks, rat.

Now, back to the post.)

Groping for guidance like the rest of us, Veltman offers three ways of establishing ethics for “journalist entrepreneurs”: “obtaining funding from ‘neutral’ grant-making bodies” (which assumes “journalist entrepreneurs” are adhering to the nonprofit model, something quite unclear); “transferring out of one journalistic beat into another beat” (which assumes easy, quick, painless professional transitions); and “avoiding covering the work of individuals and organizations that give you money” (which assumes this is somehow actually different from traditional ethics in reporting).

The truth is, the old model of a Chinese wall existing between the revenue side of journalism and the content side is still applicable to the blogosphere, even though a blog is generally an expression of the thoughts, investigations and views of one person or a small group. In other words, find a business partner. That’s the conclusion I came to with regard to the CFR. I simply could not, and never will, run around trying to solicit money from the people I write about.

Like Veltman also said, it’s a can of worms. That said, I don’t think new journalism forms necessarily need a new ethics code, or needs to supplant plain common sense. Indeed, I think ethics for “journalism entrepreneurs” are strangely and unmistakably similar to what basic ethics for traditional journalism always were.

And now, a final note.

In a new piece awaiting approval over at the Huffington Post, I express my continued belief that blogs, despite the lack of financial backing for all but the very, very, very few, still represents an inspiring new model for cultural journalism. And that, sooner or later, someone will learn how to derive enough income from it to make it worthwhile. I’m also not talking about hawking toothpaste here, but blogging about the arts. It won’t be going nonprofit and it won’t be soliciting venture capital and it won’t be because legacy trust funds are keeping things afloat. It’ll be because the idea makes great sense. And because the market for the arts demands it.