Blogging Ethics and Nefesh B’Nefesh–Does Business Class Corrupt?

Haim Watzman

Shouldn’t journalistic ethics apply to bloggers? Specifically, shouldn’t bloggers refuse to accept perks from companies, organizations, and power brokers they write about? I’m a newbie in the blogging world, but I believe that any blogger who seeks credibility and independence must accept this standard.

The issue came up specifically when I attended the First International Jewish Bloggers Convention last Wednesday here in Jerusalem. The convention was organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh, which promotes aliya from Western countries. I’m all in favor of aliya, and Nefesh B’Nefesh does fine work, even if its close association with Binyamin Netanyahu—the convention’s keynote speaker—and other figures on the Israeli right is not to my taste.

To kick off the convention, Nefesh B’Nefesh flew a number of Israel-based Jewish bloggers to the U.S. so that they could accompany a planeload of new immigrants on their move to their new country. At least some of the bloggers were given business class seats. They were also given complete freedom to write whatever they wished about what they saw and heard—it could hardly have been otherwise given the nature of the blog medium.

So what’s the problem? If Nefesh B’Nefesh is a laudable outfit, and if it gave the beneficiaries of its largesse complete freedom, what could be wrong?

Well, think of a precisely parallel situation. Say a big pharma company throws a lavish bash for delegates to this week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver. The delegates include members of congress and political functionaries who have the ears of decision makers. The company does fine work—it spends huge amounts of money pursuing cancer remedies and maybe makes that migraine pill you couldn’t live without. And it assures all the guests at its party that it is simply expressing its gratitude to the Democratic party, and is in no way seeking to influence the votes of members of congress or the actions of other decision-makers.

As a matter of fact, my sister Nancy Watzman is tracking such bashes this week for the Sunlight Foundation at her Party Time blog. It’s a tough assignment, having to estimate the cost of all those ice sculptures and the legality of finger foods at the more than 400 parties scheduled for the two major party conventions, but Nancy is determined to show how good innocent fun had lobbyists and politicians can have a deleterious influence on democracy. I think we’d all agree with Nancy when she says, as she does on this NPR podcast, that large sums of money simply cannot be dispensed so innocently. “When [you, a congressman] go back to Washington, would you be more likely to answer a phone call from me or would you be more likely to answer the phone call from the lobbyist you ate some shrimp with at one of these parties?” she asks.

Exactly. I have no reason to believe that Nefesh B’Nefesh, its officers, and its employees are anything but dedicated and hardworking idealists. But even philanthropic organizations have interests—they must compete for funding and donors, must present an image to the public, and must curry favor with politicians. And we know that money corrupts—do we lack instances of scandals in charities?

A blogger who received a free business-class round-trip plane ticket from Nefesh B’Nefesh would inevitably think twice about checking out a rumor of malfeasance in the organization—or even about writing that some of the olim in its care felt they hadn’t been treated properly. Even if there were no such rumors or complaints to be heard, the fact that the bloggers accepted this perk automatically reduces their credibility to zero in writing about the organization and its activities.

True, bloggers do not have news organizations behind them to pick up the cost of travel and other expenses. Adhering to the standards I advocate here would mean that they could not participate in one of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s flights at all.

But there are other ways of covering this story. For example, bloggers interested in aliya could drive or take a cab to Ben-Gurion airport to meet the new arrivals, or contact them thereafter.

Nefesh B’Nefesh is to be congratulated for organizing the Jewish Bloggers Convention—it was a welcome opportunity for me to meet other bloggers. And I have no reason to believe that any of the bloggers who accepted its plane tickets are anything but honest and dedicated writers. But my advice is: Nefesh B’Nefesh—don’t tempt bloggers with plane tickets next time. And bloggers—if they offer you one, politely but firmly turn it down.

28 thoughts on “Blogging Ethics and Nefesh B’Nefesh–Does Business Class Corrupt?

  1. In my view, the best way to deal with this is just to disclose all gifts and trips. I wouldn’t want people to not be able to go to important conferences, etc., just because they don’t have the money. If you disclose publicly that you’re being paid, and how much you’re being paid, then your readers can come to their own conclusions about your blogging. Anyways, my two cents.

  2. Well said, Haim. If blogging is the future of journalism – and it may well be – it has to have some standards that give us a sense of trust when we read. One thing that I don’t know is whether the bloggers mentioned this little item. Disclosure – i.e. Sunlight – can go a long way toward exposing hidden biases. I would read the NBN-financed blogs more critically – at least with a different eye – if I knew they were bought and paid for.

    When I was at the Jerusalem Post I pushed for disclosure on the perks given to JP writers that then resulted in stories. Eventually, they did begin (sometimes) saying that writer so-and-so was a guest of Turkish Airlines – or whatever – at the end of an article gushing positively about travel to Turkey – or whatever.

    Some of the bigger bloggers do disclose their conflicts.

  3. Many (perhaps all–I didn’t check them all) of the bloggers were up front about receiving the plane ticket. While this is laudable, I think it’s an imperfect solution. Again, the political analogy holds. Public documentation of financial and other conflicts of interest certainly helps reduce money’s influence, but even when it’s documented the effect is not eliminated. Exceptions might be called for in unusual circumstances, but in this case, as I pointed out, the story could easily have been covered without accepting the gift. I still maintain that the correct blogger response should have been to turn down the offer.

  4. I didn’t get to ride the planes. I did get the free eats at the conference. That said, there’s no way I’d go easy on NBN or any other organization because I got a free sandwich and cookies. As I said in my post, we all know what NBN is, what it does, and whether you subscribe to their agenda or oppose their agenda or think the whole agenda issue is a non-issue (that’s me), then you can choose for yourself — and since we’re all internet blabbermouths, we’re hardly the ones to keep our opinions or agendas a secret.

    I think you’re worrying too much. Many of the bloggers there are less journalists in the traditional sense of that word and more akin to the diarists of previous centuries.

  5. Right, but wouldn’t my attendance at Jewish camps that had a zionist bent be something I’d need to disclose, rather than avoid? Refusing perks makes a lot more sense for say, defense department government employees that are reviewing defense contracts.

    Bloggers are not journalists — Journalists make their money and people read their stuff looking for objectivity, bloggers are hopefully not trying to be objective. At least that’s when they’re most interesting.

  6. The point is that we are not journalists. We don’t have the resources that News gathering organizations have. When the NBN free flight opportunity came along I took it because it would generate content of interest to our readers, but mostly because NBN made no demands with respect to the nature of the content. As such, I have linked to blogs critical of the whole thing and everyone is free to comment on any of the posts I wrote. This has not even remotely been an issue with NBN and my decision to accept their ticket was a good one. I don’t dismiss these sorts of things out of hand and I am always open about gifts or whatever that I have received. The thing about the Internet/Blogosphere is that it is kind of self policing that way. I don’t dismiss offers like the one made by NBN out of hand because I make it a point to mention the inducements and more importantly, if Jewlicious just became a shill for well monied interests I’d get slaughtered in the comments – which would include criticisms by other Jewlicious bloggers – and no one would read us anymore.

    NBN now has exactly the same access to me as any other Jewish organization or individual. They can email me and I might respond. So not a big deal.

  7. Here via Baka Diary….

    1) So far as I know, the bloggers that received a ticket disclosed it.

    2) Did NBN buy support? I do not know how much they bought support, but I do sense that there is a certain amount of “community pressure” to accept the party line. And if you don’t, than you are not nice.

    Yes, I am being catty. Sorry!

  8. Hiam,

    I don’t think abstaining from taking gifts is going to be taken seriously by anyone except professional bloggers. Sure, for every free ride we take, our credibility takes a hit. But that’s where we other bloggers come in to enforce the “dog eat dog” checks-and-balances of the blogosphere.

    If Jewlicious and Israpundit want to take a free ride to Nefesh B’Nefesh, then it’s their right. They’re writing as private citizens. But it’s also other bloggers’ places to announce when innocent enthusiasm plows into ignorance of implications. (Although I disagree with CK — I think Jewlicious has found *more* readers since becoming a shill for well-monied interests like birthright-israel.)

    Besides, we’re in this for the fun — and while my fun is politics, plenty of others are just out to enjoy being heard, and they’ll do it on anybody’s check.

  9. When I was at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, I don’t think we necessarily mentioned that the UJA was paying for the trip we reported on.

    Anyway, with the DNC passing out bags emblazoned with the AT&T logo, I think it’s now officially bipartisan policy that rules and ethics only apply to the little folk. Why shouldn’t bloggers strive to act like the Olmerts, Cheneys and AT&Ts of the world?

    Or am I being too cynical again?

  10. Good golly! KFJ: We came to BRI. We wanted to lead trips because it would give us an opportunity to provide interesting content to our readers, many of whom are interested in going on a trip to Israel or have gone on such trips. We came to them. And believe me, far from being a benefit, leading BRI trips is hard work. If I shill for BRI, it’s because I believe in their mission – which then hardly makes me a shill. Jewlicious has also been the site of criticism of aspects of BRI – and AND everyone is free to post comments critical of anything we write. We don’t censor comments – thats the beauty of it all.

    Shill? Sheesh. That’s a little harsh there KFJ.

  11. The strongest argument against my position is that there are fundamental differences between bloggers and journalists. Three such distinctions have been made:
    1. ck and others point out that bloggers don’t have the financial backing of a news organization and therefore cannot reasonably be expected to pay for junkets themselves.
    2. aliyah06 says that the proper analogy for the blogger is not the journalist but the diarist (Samuel Pepys rather than Woodward & Berstein)
    3. Kung Fu Jew and others point to the self-regulating nature of the blogosphere–if it looks like you’re being unduly influenced by an organization that gave you a perk, other bloggers will slam you and the public will be warned.
    Let’s take these back to front. I’m new in the blog world, but one thing that I’ve learned in my half year of experience is that the blogging world is polarized. Readers tend to read blogs that reinforce their preexisting beliefs; if they visit opposing blogs it’s often for the purpose of polemics. So I’m skeptical about how well the self-policing mechanism works. But I don’t have enough experience to say for sure and I may be wrong. If it works, then this would be the strongest of the three arguments against my position.
    Argument 2, claiming that the blogger is diarist rather than a journalist, may accurately describe how some bloggers view themselves. But in a world in which an increasingly large portion of citizens, especially young ones, seem to get most of their knowledge of the public sphere from blogs, I think this is a cop-out. Sure, bloggers are more like diarists in style, and in making no attempt to hide their personal biases and opinions, in not pretending to strive for the kind of artificial objectivity and balance that is the bane of much professional journalism. But there’s an important distinction between being subjective (which comes from inside, and is fine) and being bought (which comes from outside, and is not).
    I addressed argument 1, that given the financial limitations of bloggers, full disclosure should be a sufficient ethical standard, in my original post. Certainly this is the second-best option. If , as Alan Abbey says, the Jpost did not disclose the perks received by its reporters when he was there, and as Reb Yudel says that the JTA did not disclose who paid for its writers’ flights, than that’s shocking and unprofessional. There are indeed cases in which turning down a perk or favor is not a realistic option because in doing so you’ll insult a source or lose the only opportunity you have to delve into an important story. Still, a blogger–indeed any sort of writer–who cares for his or her credibility would do best to make a general rule of turning down free flights, dinners, and gifts from people and organizations that are the subjects of his or her writing.

  12. Follow-up comment on non-disclosure: My understanding is that the non-disclosure of perks & junkets is a standard of Israeli journalism. How did the Leonardo DiCaprio-Bar Rafaeli trip to Israel to visit her parents come to light last year? The two celebs were on the same plane as a group of Israeli journos who were on their way back from a European junket intended to promote “Mamma Mia,” which was on its way to Israel.

  13. Sigh. I will not dismiss offers of free stuff out of hand ever. Everything is dealt with on a case by case basis. If it will provide relevant, interesting and relatively unbiased content to my readers, then I’ll do as I see fit. If I get out of hand I will be smacked down by my audience, other bloggers and fellow members of Jewlicious – we often argue with each other. I do not believe that Haim’s best option – outright refusal to accept any gratuities – is the best option at all.

    That having been said, how does one deal with advertisers or are they verboten as well? Certainly Jewlicious gets a large chunk of its revenue – revenue that allows us and several other blogs that we host to function – from well monied Jewish organizational and commercial interests. Should we refuse that as well? What about the blogs we host and assist? Should they refuse our assistance because they may be tainted by our bias?

    I appreciate your strong moral stand Haim. But there is no need for any of us to be holier than the Pope. I am pretty upfront about the folks that kick in a few hundred bucks here and there to help run Jewlicious. We are extremely upfront about the financial sponsors that kick in tens of thousands of dollars to help fund our Festivals. I think that’s plenty straightforward.

  14. That publications, authors, and blogs may be dependent on advertising income is of course a potential problem and there have been many cases in which advertisers have tried to influence editorial content. But if it’s kept within the bounds of a clear business deal–I give you a box of this size on my blog in exchange for a payment of an amount of money that makes sense in the advertising marketplace, then it’s kosher. It’s like if you’re prime minister and you want to sell your house and someone buys it from you at market price. Conceivably you could be beholden to the buyer for doing the deal, but you presumably could have gotten the same deal from someone else. But if the buyer pays you twice the market price, that’s improper. Of course, that’s just a hypothetical example–it could never happen in real life.
    I don’t want to sound holier-than-thou–I was flown to New York for free twice in the past six months by the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, for which one of my books was a contender. And I’ve written about some of the other contending books on this blog–without disclosing those free flights. Am I in violation of my own principles?
    The best argument on ck’s side that he hasn’t mentioned is that we’ve been conducting this argument despite the fact that South Jerusalem owes him–he’s provided us with some much-appreciated help in redesigning our blog. The fact that he’s taking my criticism in stride is evidence in support of the contention that the blogosphere may have its own ways of preventing undue bias.

  15. Even worse than payment was the selection of bloggers along the ideological and political lines. Several American bloggers were invited and many people who made this medium what is today were deliberately missed. Call this NBN bloggers but please don’t call it Jewish Bloggers. The panels were very far from representative.

    And people who have been on Jblogging scene for 4-5 years know exactly what I am talking about.

  16. The argument over whether bloggers are/can be journalists will rage on, and some of us will adhere to more journalistic standards while others of us become the aforementioned diarists who are unabashedly subjective. While some people might consider me to be more journalistic, I lack a traditional journalism background and am therefore more comfortable referring to myself as a writer (the magazine, newspaper or blog is merely a tool or medium–the words are the thing).

    Anyone who reads my blog knows that I enjoyed the heck out of the King David Lounge at JFK Airport, and that I had one of the business class seats. (It was cool, even if I didn’t get any sleep, despite the fully reclining seat.) But that was only one-way.

    If it makes a difference to anyone journalistically/ethically, I’ll be flying regular cattle class on the way home, with no lounge privileges. The business treatment was one-way only, on a charter plane that was full of NBN olim and staff people, in addition to the journalists and bloggers. While NBN’s sponsorship did provide me with a chance to participate in this event in a way I would not have otherwise had, it did not blind me to the event’s weaknesses, about which I’ve been open with both organizers and attendees.

    There is, of course, another issue. Jewish journalism’s pay scale is ridiculous, and hardly any Jewish news organizations will volunteer to send their journalists somewhere expensive. Nor can said journalists afford to lay out their own money in the hope that it will yield a story and they’ll at best break even. They sometimes have to find “sponsors” for those events, which leads again to the ethics question.

    Most journalists are comped into film screenings, Broadway shows, museum events, etc. Does accepting free admission to such events necessarily strip them of their objectivity? Or should they be volunteering to pay for the privilege of attending and covering these events, too?

  17. Tzemach,

    I have been blogging for more than 4 years and I was invited. I am not right wing, nor frum. Just an American Jew who lives in L.A.

    You don’t have to like it, but it was a Jewish blogging conference.

    But in a world in which an increasingly large portion of citizens, especially young ones, seem to get most of their knowledge of the public sphere from blogs, I think this is a cop-out.

    Haim,

    It sounds to me like the cop-out is suggesting that because many people do a piss poor job of gathering information we should be extra careful in what we say.

    It seems to me like you are suggesting that we cater to the laziness of some people by helping them stay ignorant.

    I would take the opposite approach and continue to push people to seek out information from multiple sources.

    Where is the critical thought and analysis. If we teach them how to do that we are all better served.

  18. I’d like to add two things for the record.

    1. Benzi Kluwgant of N B’N e-mailed me the following clarification:

    “When Nefesh B’Nefesh charters an El Al flight we pay ONE sum for the entire plane. There are no classes on the charter flights like on their regular commercial flights…. [T]he business class these bloggers were treated to consisted of the same chartered meals that El Al serves and the same regular service.”

    2. The Chronicle of Higher Education, whose correspondent in Israel I was for 25 years, has kindly allowed me to quote from their ethical guidelines. The Chronicle drew heavily from the rules promulgated by other news organizations in drawing up this document, so they represent a common standard. The relevant section reads:

    “Staff members may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or as an inducement to alter or forgo unfavorable coverage. So staff members may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements, or other inducements from any individuals or organizations covered by The Chronicle or likely to be covered by The Chronicle. . . . Staff members may not accept free or discounted transportation and lodging in connection with our coverage except where special circumstances give us no choice. Among them are certain military or scientific expeditions and other trips for which alternative arrangements would be impractical — for example, a trip to the South Pole aboard a military plane. . . . Staff members who cover artistic performances or athletic or other events where admission is charged may accept the press passes or tickets customarily made available. No other staff members, not even editors in arts-related sections, may accept free tickets. ”

    Of course, ambiguous situations always arise and need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis by the journalist in consultation with editors.

    As you’ll see from the guidelines, the fact that flying the bloggers did not cost N B’N any additional money is irrelevant to the ethical status of offering the free flights. So I stand by my position.

    Since Yisrael Medad has, over at his blog, insinuated that I’m making this fuss simply because I wasn’t offered a free flight myself, I’d like to put on record that a couple of years ago (when I was just a reporter, and hadn’t yet attained the rank of blogger) a person associated with Nefesh B’Nefesh told me they were offering free flights for writers and offered me one. I turned him down curtly and without a second thought because it was obvious to me that the offer was improper. In fact, I was insulted that he thought that I would accept such a thing.

  19. “[T]he blogging world is polarized. Readers tend to read blogs that reinforce their preexisting beliefs; if they visit opposing blogs it’s often for the purpose of polemics. ”

    True, but I listed SJ because (1) I think we all need exposure to different points of view and (2) you are a terrific writer. I hope you know my invitation to others was meant to be tongue-in-cheek!

    I’d carry your published guidelines over to this controversy, however: if it’s okay to accept a ticket to a ballet one is covering, or it’s okay to accept a free military flight to cover a scientific something at the South Pole, then why is it NOT okay to accept a free NBN flight for the purpose of writing about the people aboard the flight?

    It seems to me that it would be difficult to cover the door-to-door experience of making aliyah in a hasty and jet-lagged arrival lounge at BG. It seems that interviewing the olim aboard their plane will give you a much better opportunity to ask in-depth questions and do follow up questions, rather than simply grab exhausted sound-bytes at the airport lounge. It need not be an enthusiastically-endorsing-NBN piece, either—certainly I can review a play or orchestra and critique it despite the free ticket, so why can’t I be critical (as an olah myself) of what NBN has NOT prepared the olim for?

  20. The purpose of journalistic ethics, Haim, was simply to point to the One who would come and fulfill these laws — me — and thereafter all who believe in me are no longer under law but under grace.

  21. aliyah06–
    “if it’s okay to accept a ticket to a ballet one is covering, or it’s okay to accept a free military flight to cover a scientific something at the South Pole, then why is it NOT okay to accept a free NBN flight for the purpose of writing about the people aboard the flight?”
    2. bc you can’t get there any other way.
    1. equating a ticket to the ballet with an overseas flight is like equating a cup of coffee with a Bermuda vacation. It’s obviously not on the same scale. The flight to NY is worth exponentially more to you, both because of its face value and because of its added value (it may enable you to do business there, visit family, buy an Iphone, etc.).

  22. Responding to Haim’s #21 above:

    a. Good for you.
    b. I was asked to do a book review and was awarded a free copy of the book. I am not sure if Haim does book reviews regularly but let me say that I do not return books. And I write ’em as I read ’em. In this case, it should be out in the latest Nekuda, I am fairly critical why slightly complimentary.
    c. And despite Haim’s presumption: “A blogger who received a free business-class round-trip plane ticket from Nefesh B’Nefesh would inevitably think twice about checking out a rumor of malfeasance in the organization – or even about writing that some of the olim in its care felt they hadn’t been treated properly.”

    I am sure that if a reporter was asked to review a NBN operation and cover an immigrant’s journey and life tale and to do so was provided a free ticket, he would know to separate financial improvement with journalistic truth or, in other words, if he did discover something very wrong (NBN bribing Ministry of Interior clerks or, an NBN immigrant faking it), he’d publish it. You don’t believe so, but I believe in the natural instinct of a blogger.

  23. Two and three years ago, I was given a seat on chartered NBN flights in exchange for writing in lots more than my blog. All of the journalists and some “special needs” olim were in “business class seats,” same service on entire plane, and Rav Lau and other real important people had the 1st class seats.

    I spent pre-flight, post-flight and flying time photographing and interviewing olim. I didn’t write the sort of “look at me” posts the jbloggers to the conference wrote. I have two very elderly parents in NY and would gladly do it again to cut travel expenses and have a totally uplifting experience.

    In addition, I’ve been given a couple of books to review on my blog. When I did it for JPost, I got to keep the book, but I only got paid for the review if they published it. As a blogger, I’m my own boss.

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