Thursday, October 25, 2007

No mercy rule

In a lot of Little League or rec-softball games there's a "mercy rule": Get ahead by 10 runs and they call the game. Stop embarrassing the other kids; let's go get a beer.

No such luck in the World Series, where it was already 11-1 in the fifth inning last night when I turned off the game with the Red Sox still batting and the Rockies still walking in runs. Final was 13-1. Will Leitch, a great sportswriter who keeps a good blog for the New York Times, Fair and Foul, is having none of it. The tuning out early part, that is. In fact, based on his own upbringing, he turns sticking out a baseball game into a moral imperative:

It’s my father’s signature maxim and has been the founding principle, perhaps the organizing tenet, of the Leitch family structure. It doesn’t matter how well things are going — or how much they’re falling apart — you always follow everything through to the end. If you’re succeeding, you can never let up until you are certain the job is done. If you’re failing (particularly when you’re failing in a dramatic, definitive fashion), you pay attention to what you’re doing wrong so it won’t happen again.

It's a good piece.

In other baseball coverage, I liked Rob Neyer's lineup for ESPN of the all-time best World Series players. As Neyer casts it, these aren't necessarily the best players ever (though some are), but his picks for the top performers in the history of the Series, by position. No shock that four Yankees make the list, but he's got a couple of nice surprise picks too, like Lou Brock in left field and Alan Trammell at short. Worth reading for baseball nuts.

Elsewhere, as long as we're showing no mercy let's turn to the news.

Today's the first day in a while that the LA fires haven't dominated the local newspapers -- more on the fires in a minute -- so I want to begin with the morning's big web-only news around these parts: the maiden voyage of Singapore Airlines' Airbus A380. That's a big deal here in Seattle because the A380 is the world's largest jetliner, it's made by the local Boeing Company's sole competitor and it beat Boeing's now-delayed new 787 Dreamliner jumbo-jet to market.

OK. What draws my attention is the P-I's decision to send its aerospace reporter James Wallace on a junket to cover this kickoff flight. As Wallace notes, he was part of a select group of media folks invited to join the "historic flight," with most of the rest of the passengers bidding online for tickets and one rich nerd reportedly paying $100,000.

(AP photo, from seattlepi.com)

To me this is a borderline ethical issue that warrants discussion and would benefit from a comprehensive journalism ethics policy, which I know firsthand the paper doesn't have. The problem, in general terms, is that when reporters take something of value from a source or potential source their integrity is compromised. At the very least, the appearance of conflict would be raised. Although reporters are trained to strive for objectivity (and most I've worked with are stand-up, good people) they're also human; it's easy to imagine the tone of a story being swayed, if only subconsciously, by cool gifts. That's why fashion reporters aren't wearing free Armani and even small-town City Hall reporters pay their own way at lunch.

So back to Wallace. I don't think he's in Airbus' pocket -- far from it -- and at this point in his very long career he's not on the make for a free flight between Singapore and Sydney, even on a luxury airliner. But does the reader know that? Check out this excerpt from James' blog entry on the flight:

I thought I would be sitting in economy class with the other 70 or so media representatives -- only a handful from the U.S. But a few of us, including my pal Geoff Thomas of ATW, were upgraded to business class and I was seated next to the chief executive of Singapore Airlines. We had some interesting talks on the plane about the future of the 747 as well as what's happening with the 787.

Not only special consideration but special access to the top source too! Even knowing James personally -- as well as his fine and exceptionally ethical editor, Margaret Santjer, whom I hired for the gig -- I momentarily lost control of my eyebrow.

All of which is not to say, though, that this trip would be a slam-dunk "no" for me as a newsroom manager. I've nixed several similar junkets but also let some through, including by Wallace. The reason I described this initially as a "borderline" ethics call is that good papers with good ethics policies leave some discretion for cases when news considerations outweigh concern about accepting some "gift," especially if the gift is something routine or not of great value. That's why, for example, sports reporters don't buy a ticket to sit in the press box -- they're there only to report the game, not as a spectator -- and why film critics normally watch free preview screenings of the movies they review.

In this case, there's certainly great news value, especially for the P-I's readership. And while the gift was of significant value, the courtesy invite was likely the only way to participate. I don't see Margaret on eBay with a hundred grand transferred into her PayPal account. On the other hand, there are subtle hidden gifts in a deal like this that go beyond the paper. What if Wallace decides he wants to write a book about the jumbo-jet competition? Surely this trip would be a big reporting and selling advantage. Should the paper be abetting that?

I don't know. After talking it all through I might have been persuaded to let James go. And maybe they did have such conversations; if so, good for them.

But here's what really gets me (and I'm sorry for the very long digression): After all that, the P-I's first stories about the flight, both last night and this morning, were by the Associated Press, the exact same accounts that appeared in the Seattle Times!

The best Wallace could manage, at 5:28 a.m. local time, was this blog entry: "I'll be filing my story of the first commercial A380 flight in a while. It was an incredible adventure."

He has since filed a full story, and it's fine, I guess. Still. What a waste of a good ethical dilemma.

For coverage (on another beat) that inspires total trust despite tricky ethical considerations, watch David Pogue's column in the New York Times Circuits section, which is always my favorite part of the Thursday papers. Today Pogue reviews Apple's new Leopard operating system, which drops tomorrow.

In Southern California, the fires are still burning and still devastating, of course, but it looks like they're turning the corner. The Santa Ana winds are subsiding and the temperature is dropping, so that will help. I like how the LA Times/Google map, which we embedded in a previous post, updates automatically and shows the progress in one glance.


View Larger Map

The Times, which has done such a spectacular job reporting the fires, turns attention today to the claims, including in its own pages, that the disaster has displaced a million people. Probably a bogus number, we now learn. Excellent reporting, including by a couple of friends and former colleagues, Sharon Bernstein and Megan Garvey. They rock.

Old News Dept.: Gene Stout finally got around to posting his Neil Young review -- "a stirring, entertaining journey" -- at about 5:15 last night, almost 24 hours after the concert began. M&M review here.

OK, with all that serious stuff out of the way, a parting mention of the feature that will probably generate more traffic than all those other boring stories combined: the P-I's photo gallery of the Fredericks of Hollywood fashion show.

Mercy!

(AP photo, from seattlepi.com)

4 comments:

iknowstuff said...

88,000 page views so far

Mark said...

yes, and only 45 or 50 by me, so somebody out there is clicking on those photos.

mich said...

Whew! That was almost as long as some of Postman's posts.

On your first subject, the mercy rule and sticking with a game to the end: I changed channels when it was 13-1, and felt guilty even then. And I imagined you scolding me for giving up. You bailed even before me?!

Mark said...

Wow. re: Postman's posts: tragic.

I hereby resolve to tighten up.