David Brooks of the New York Times criticized for undisclosed financial ties to the project he praised
According to BuzzFeed News, Brooks received a salary from the Aspen Institute think tank for his work on an initiative called Weave that combats social isolation and seeks to build relationships with the community. The project, started by Brooks, is funded by Facebook and other major donors, including the father of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post.
Times readers know about Brooks’ work for Weave because he wrote about it repeatedly in his column. The problem of social isolation, he wrote in the Times in early 2019, “is being solved locally by people across the country, community building and social fabric weaving.”
But Brooks left out a few important details – namely, that he’s doing more than just volunteer with Weave. Facebook funded the project with a $ 250,000 grant, according to BuzzFeed, and Brooks received a salary from Aspen for his work on it, although how much is unclear.
Regardless, Brooks wrote some supportive words on behalf of Facebook that were posted on its company page. “Facebook Groups has 1.8 billion users, and more than half of them belong to five or more groups,” he wrote on a “guest blog” for Facebook last month. “It’s clear that people really value the communities they build online.”
Mainstream news organizations, including the Times, typically require their employees to stop writing about or covering any company or person with whom they have a financial or personal relationship. For example, financial reporters are not intended to cover companies or companies in which they have invested. this would likely raise the suspicion among readers that the reporting was self-interested.
When a conflict of interest is inevitable, news organizations tend to disclose it in the course of their reporting or commentary. The fundamental obligation is to be “overboard” with readers so they can fairly judge a journalist’s possible motivations and outside influences, said Patrick Lee Plaisance, editor of the Journal of Media Ethics and professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University.
Brooks’ “Non-Disclosure [his compensation] undermines a reader’s ability to gauge their allegations, ”Plaisance said. He said it also hurts the overall credibility of the Times, which readers expect to be transparent. “Readers have a right not to feel mistaken,” he said.
The Times people said Brooks had briefed at least some of his former bosses on the details of the Weave Project. But last summer the top editors of the Times dropped out, and the current editors of Brooks were unaware of the arrangement. Officially, the Times refused to say whether it knew of Brooks’ outside employment.
In response to a request for comment, a Times spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy, re-issued a statement Wednesday made by the company BuzzFeed: “We are in the process of reviewing David’s relationship with the Weave Project and the Aspen Institute, and what information is available close. if available, should be added to David’s columns in the future. “
She declined to answer follow-up questions. Brooks did not respond to a request for comment.
The Brooks questions follow a series of episodes in which Times journalists participated. Last summer, James Bennet, then editor of the editorial page, resigned under pressure and James Dao, his deputy, was reassigned for publishing a column by Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) Igniting Staff Objections. Another employee, columnist Bari Weiss, left the newspaper a short time later and said in a long letter of resignation to Verlag AG Sulzberger that she had been “bullied” by people inside and outside the Times.
In the past few weeks, two Times journalists, Donald McNeil Jr. and Andy Mills, have gone into an uproar over their personal conduct. Separately, the Times cut ties with a freelance editor, Lauren Wolfe, after her tweet about Joe Biden’s inauguration sparked a wave of conservative criticism on social media.
For decades, many journalists associated with a news organization have had secondary sources of income – from writing books to making speeches to appearing on television news programs. In addition to writing for The Times, Brooks is an expert on PBS NewsHour.
But none of these external roles are necessarily a conflict of interest. A NewsHour spokesman, Nick Massella, said Thursday that the program was aware of Brooks’ work for the Aspen Institute but was unaware of its funding sources. He said the segments the program aired through the project and the Aspen Institute do not warrant further disclosure.
Brooks has written about the Weave Project several times in the Times. He promoted one of his first events in a column in May 2019 and then covered the event in another column, which was supplemented by photos by a Times photographer. “The people at this meeting are some of the most compelling people I have ever met,” he wrote.
At no point, however, did he disclose Weave’s donors or that he was being compensated by the Aspen Institute. In addition to Facebook, supporters of the project include Miguel Bezos, an Aspen trustee and the father of Jeff Bezos, who donated $ 300,000, according to BuzzFeed.
Brooks’ guest blogging on Facebook’s corporate website also made no mention of his financial ties to the company. One contribution appeared to rid the social network of complicity in promoting disinformation of the Russian elections, anti-Semitism, medical misinformation and hoax.
“What I have learned from all this research is that the problem is not social media, but the ideas and behavior of the people who use it,” he wrote on his Facebook guest blog last month.