Over the past two years, media writer Ben Smith’s weekly New York Times column has become known for two things: Entertaining, conversation-driving scoops, like the one that exposed digital-media company Ozy as something of a Potemkin enterprise, and blatant conflicts of interest. In his latest column, Smith provides yet another example of the latter by writing about the NewsGuild, the journalism union. In it, he doesn’t disclose that he worked against BuzzFeed staffers organizing with NewsGuild when he was in charge of the site’s news side, or that he has a financial interest in BuzzFeed, with which the union is currently negotiating.
The central issue, as Justin Peters recently detailed at Slate, is that Smith, as the former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, owns stock options in BuzzFeed, which is set to go public soon. This means he can’t cover BuzzFeed “extensively,” a word he’s used repeatedly in disclosures when his coverage touches the company. It also raises questions about his work: He presumably couldn’t write about a scandal at BuzzFeed, and his decisions about how to cover (and not cover) its competitors and the broader media landscape could affect BuzzFeed’s standing as well. More than that, BuzzFeed has relationships with any number of powerful institutions that are natural subjects for a media reporter, among them Facebook and Google, but also the NewsGuild. His coverage of them is complicated by the fact of his financial interest.
This makes it strange that in yesterday’s column, a fairly anodyne survey of the increasing amount of labor coverage in U.S. newsrooms running under the headline “Why the Media Loves Unions Now,” Smith quotes NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss with a disclosure that says the union represents Times workers but without one noting that it represents BuzzFeed workers against whom Smith negotiated. (They organized in 2019, when Smith was running the shop.) Nor is this the first time he’s done this.
In June, Smith wrote a detailed report on the NewsGuild’s efforts to organize The New Yorker, in which Smith depicted the star writers for the magazine as highly critical of the unionizing drive and of NewsGuild tactics. The piece could have carried a disclosure about Smith’s past with the NewsGuild, but didn’t. (“Bluntly, re: NewsGuild, what it comes down to for me is that I would never hire an agent who had lied to or about me,” he quoted writer Ben Taub as writing.) Nor did a report from last December about sexual misconduct allegations against a powerful NewsGuild official, which was largely centered on how the union, Smith wrote, looked the other way. A May 2020 column on a new wave of newsroom activism, the lede of which depicted the NewsGuild asking for government money during the early pandemic as “cross[ing] a line that once seemed unimaginable” and contrasted it to fretting from Times reporter Peter Baker, essentially was a big disclosure, but like the others had an omission: None of these stories disclosed that the NewsGuild represents Times workers. (Smith is not himself a member of the Times’ union; a NewsGuild representative declined to comment for this story.)
Smith is a well-respected journalist, and it doesn’t seem especially likely that his critical coverage of the NewsGuild is driven by a desire to weaken its hand in negotiations with either his employer or a competitor in which he owns a financial stake. (The New Yorker and sexual misconduct stories in particular were ones any media reporter would love to have done.) On the other hand, these are the sorts of clear conflict of interest that are usually disclosed to readers for the sake of transparency. Smith, as the country’s most prominent media columnist, surely understands the importance of doing so.
There would seem to be all the more reason for disclosure given Smith’s past opposition to BuzzFeed News organizing with the NewsGuild. The BuzzFeed news union has been bargaining with management for nearly two years at this point, dating back to a time when he was still editor-in-chief; this means that he’s not merely an observer of NewsGuild’s organizing activities, but was recently a powerful adversary of theirs, and a key participant in a major ongoing story that he has repeatedly written about while at the Times.
All of this would seem to necessitate, at the least, disclosure, especially given that these are exactly the sorts of conflicts of interest of which the Times makes a big deal. (The Times is the sort of paper where star reporters wring their hands about whether voting gives rise to bias.) The first paragraph of the paper’s ethics policy, in fact, says, “The Times and members of its news department and editorial page staff share an interest in avoiding conflicts of interest or an appearance of a conflict.”
Motherboard reached out to Smith to better understand why his coverage has not carried the sort of disclosures it would seem to require, but he was unable to discuss the subject.
“Labor is one of the biggest stories in media right now, so it's been a big part of the column,” Smith told Motherboard. “On the details of my relationship with the Times, I really need to defer to the Times.”
A Times spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that a May 2020 Ben Smith column did not carry a disclosure that it did. We regret the error.