PogueWatch, Day 9: David Pogue Gets Off from PitchBaby Scandal Scot-Free

the final pogueometer PogueWatch, Day 9: David Pogue Gets Off from PitchBaby Scandal Scot FreeThe Sword of Damocles hangs no more for David Pogue. The New York Times technology columnist has yet again eluded the bony grasp of editorial punishment in the wake of a “flagrant” violation of the New York Times’ editorial standards.

To refresh your memory, Mr. Pogue—easily one of the most widely-read technology columnists in the country, and a major asset to the Times—was recently found to have spoken at a seminar for communications professionals, something strictly against the New York Times standards.

This is not the first time his compliance with the Times‘ standards or ethics have been called into question.

Among others:

  • June 2009: David Pogue takes a paid speaking gig in California for an industry trade group, theConsumer Electronics Association’s “CEO Summit.” He was reprimanded by way of—per the Times—being “reminded of the policy provisions barring acceptance of speaking fees or travel expenses from all but educational or other non-profit organizations that do not have lobbying or political activity as a major focus.”
  • August 2009: David Pogue writes a glowing review of Apple operating system Snow Leopard in the Times. He has also written a book about the operating system, and thus, plainly stood to profit from his own review.
  • September 2009: David Pogue’s many conflicts merit their own column from the New York Times ombudsman, Clark Hoyt (“He Works For the Times, Too“) in which three separate journalism ethicsists conclude unanimously that Mr. Pogue’s work outside the Times often stands in strict ethical opposition to the paper. No punishment is doled out; a disclosure is added to his blog. Mr. Pogue’s response is that he is “not a reporter.
  • October 2009: David Pogue takes a speaking fee from defense contractor Raytheon and a trip to Disney World. As previously mentioned, Times standards prohibit staffers for taking fees from anyone other than non-profits.
  • May 2011: It’s revealed that David Pogue is dating PR professional Nikki Dugan; the firm she works for represents a number of companies David Pogue has written about. Times technology editor Damon Darlin explains that there were no conflicts; Mr. Pogue told him about the relationship in December, when it started, and that all pitches from Ms. Dugan’s company will go through Mr. Darlin from that point forward. (A source tells the Observer that the relationship between Mr. Pogue and Ms. Dugan started as early as April 2010.)
  • June 2011: It’s revealed that Mr. Pogue took another speaking engagement, this time to a group of communications professionals.

(He’s also had some slightly turbulent problems at home involving press, and continues to.)

Given the seriousness with which the Times takes their standards policy—and given the precedent for violations of it: zero-tolerance, whether you understand the rules or not—one would think Mr. Pogue’s status with the Times would be called into question.

Not so much. The decision, as handed down for delivery by Arthur Brisbane, the Times‘ Public Editor:

[An] inquiry into it has led to a Times internal review and, as a consequence, Pogue is barred from making any more speeches like this one to public relations professionals.

Also:

…the speech flagrantly violates the prohibition against giving advice at paid P.R. conferences.

But unlike less lucky (or popular) Times staffers, David Pogue will not be fired, and will only have a fraction of his supplementary income hedged by the Times. If not entirely predictable, it’s a lucky break: Mr. Pogue still has issues closer to the chest to concern himself withHeavy hangs the head onwhich the crown of technology-writing for all of geekdom hangs, or something along those lines.

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    From Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications and producer of the ‘Pitch Me, Baby’ presentation delivered by David Pogue at the 2011 Media Relations Summit. This comment is an elaboration of a posted response to NYT Public Editor Arthur Brisbane’s column.

    I applaud the efforts of the New York Times to enforce some kind of ethical standard for its columnists and reporters. But I think the policy has become a tortured mess as the newspaper struggles to apply principles to freelancers who have become celebrities in their own right. 

     The Times is attempting to have it both ways: It wants to save money by using wildly popular contractors like Pogue but then attempts to leash them to rules that were intended for its paid staff writers in the pre-Internet era. 

    The solution is simple but unworkable: Ban all paid speaking gigs by regular contractors  but compensate them for the revenue lost. For someone like Pogue, this could easily be in the tens of thousands of dollars—perhaps in the hundreds of thousands.  Of course, The Times is struggling financially and could never agree to such a financial arrangement.  Hence the confusing thicket of exceptions to the policy.

    Much of that policy makes no sense as it stands now anyway. For example,  NYT freelancers can seek approval from their editors for paid presentations on a case-by-case basis.  Why?

     If the purpose of the ethics policy is to avoid conflicts of interest, then one could make the case that any event could present such a conflict.  If Pogue appeared before auto executives, how would his editor evaluate a ‘perceived conflict?’   He doesn’t cover the auto industry, or does he?  Cars are now loaded with personal technology gadgets, right? What if Pogue decided that new technology that allows cars to navigate on their own was worthy of a column or blog post? Would his paid appearance  present a conflict of interest? Of course it would.  Unless he’s appearing before an association of soap manufacturers, one can hardly imagine a safe setting. 

    David’s appearance before PR people is really what caused this outcry among Times editors. And yet,  his presentation merely stated the obvious. As a tech columnist,  he relies on PR people to contact him about new product launches, updates to software and other tech news. 

    We invited him to speak because he is in a unique position to tell PR pros how to frame their pitches so they are more relevant to his beat. Much of his advice centered on good writing and research: Avoid jargon, know what the reporter covers and stop spamming him with irrelevant press releases.  What is truly ironic is that his tips, if followed, would cut down on the junk e-mails most journalists receive.

    It’s interesting that the NYT Public Editor never mentioned Pogue’s jarring statement during our event, the video of which they reviewed, that he had no interest in meeting PR people, going out to lunch with them, or having them arrange meetings with  their executives. In fact, he bluntly states that his job is to open the box and experience the product in the same manner that a consumer would.  How is this ‘cozying up’ to the PR industry (words used in Public Editor Arthur Brisbane’s column)?  

    I have known David Pogue for nearly four years.  He has spoken at several of our conferences. He is one of the most honest and candid speakers on the celebrity circuit. When he appeared at our conference at Microsoft last year, he used the occasion to rip the company for a horrible new product launch.  His appearance at that event, it is worth nothing, was expressly approved by his editor, as were two other major Ragan conferences.  

    There is one other solution to the NYT policy, one that recognizes the world we live in today. Require full disclosure of paid speaking events by Times writers and then trust your readers to come to their own conclusions. Pogue is popular for a reason—he is informative, entertaining and almost always correct in his assessment of new products. He has built an enormous reservoir of good will among his readers, most of whom couldn’t care less about his speaking engagements.