“Walter and Hildy lie constantly! They lie to each other, they lie to their friends, they lie to their colleagues, to the police. As a question of the ethics of journalism, is that ok?”
The question was posed by Randy Cohen, who writes the “Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine. He was at the Film Forum on Saturday to introduce the 1940 classic His Girl Friday, which depicts a world of double-speaking, cigarette-puffing reporters working the phones (“Get Duffy on the line!”) between hands of cards in the jailhouse pressroom.
“We will see reporter Hildy Johnson (that’s Rosalind Russell) and her editor Walter Burns do baaad, baaad things,” Cohen told the audience. “Things that would absolutely get you fired from The New York Times.”
“When it was released, several scenes were cut because reporters had begun to protest their portrayal as drunken, amoral, egomaniacs,” Cohen said with a big grin. “I don’t see what the problem was,” he added, pointing to the film’s prologue: “You will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.”
In the movie, “they lie, they cheat they steal. There’s no other way to do what they’re doing,” Cohen explained later in an interview. “I barely have a favorite color,” he said, “but if I had to make a fairly large list [of my favorite films], a dozen say, this one would be on it.”
But even for Cohen, a professional ethics stickler, the rules of today’s Times are too literal. He harks back to the days of old-school Times editor and longtime reporter Abe Rosenthal, who had one major rule: “You can fuck an elephant for all I care as long as you don’t cover the circus.”
There are more rules these days. “The Times ethics code that has a thing in it like ‘it’s an election year and your spouse puts a bumper sticker on your car’—that’s something that has to be discussed,” said Cohen, who got in “minor trouble” for giving money to the liberal political group MoveOn.
“I think this is a terrible, terrible rule; you ought not give up your civic duties because you work for a newspaper,” he said over the phone.
Cohen has since agreed to never give money to MoveOn again, although he doesn’t agree that it is unethical to do so. He also thinks that specific rule is inconsistent.
What if, for example, Cohen wanted to join the Boy Scouts? “The Times is fine with that. But it seems to me that the scouts are a radical right-wing organization that forbids people who don’t believe in God from joining; they’re a horrible discriminatory organization but it’s fine with the Times if I give them money,” he said. “My point is that all organizations are ideological.”
Each week, Cohen said, he gets as many letters disagreeing with one of his stances as he gets new questions. Ultimately, though,the long-time humorist and Emmy-winning writer for David Letterman would rather have a laugh about ethics than get lost in the seriousness of it all.
“I checked The New York Times code of conduct, something you don’t want to do all that often,” he said, gearing up for his final punch line on Saturday night. “I found something that was very upsetting to me. Our code of conduct explicitly forbids us from breaking into buildings, homes, apartments or offices. It seems peculiarly specific about real estate! Had I known I probably would have chosen some other job.”