This week, former MSNBC executive Dan Abrams unveiled his new company, Abrams Research, which puts working and ex-journalists in touch with companies so that they can, among other things, provide “advice” on things such as PR strategies, for a fee. For instance if, as his Website puts it, “a Fortune 500 business believes the financial media has focused unfairly on a small change in accounting practices rather than significant increases in revenues,” Abrams will bring together “top financial journalists to advise that business on how to best convey its message.” We and others thought this was maybe a little bit totally unethical. So we asked Abrams and his quasi-partner-in-crime Rachel Sklar to explain it. They tried. But we were not convinced. And we thought we’d check with a couple of news organizations to see if they would allow their “top” journalists to moonlight for Abrams Research.
Alan Murray, executive editor, The Wall Street Journal: “This is about as clear a violation of our conflict of interest rules as I can imagine. Journalists shouldn’t be advising companies about how to game their own organization.”
Catherine Mathis, spokeswoman, New York Times: “Times journalists would not be allowed to participate in this venture.”
This answer seemed kind of austere, so we also asked Randy Cohen, New York Times Ethicist to beef it up: “I don’t think any paper would let a journalist participate in an event she covers. And I’m sure the Times would not allow one of its financial reporters to work as a paid consultant to a financial firm she covered. The Times code is even more fastidious in that it does what you suggest: It forbids journalists from entering potentially compromising relationships with companies they do not currently cover but may in the future.”
If any other editors want to chime in, you know where we are: firstname.lastname@example.org.