Journalists are not for sale

As a fashion journalist working within the Star’s ethical guidelines, David Graham has rightly turned down his share of luxury swag proffered by publicists seeking to curry favour and influence coverage of the newest new thing in fashion.

But he’s never been faced with such an outright quid pro quo — a bribe actually — as he encountered recently when a 26-year-old “web marketing consultant” offered him money in exchange for his help in making a May, 2009 article disappear from the Star’s website.

You might consider this a cautionary tale of morality run amok in the digital age. To be fair to all involved, I’ve decided not to name names. I’m giving our young web dude, who’s not much older than my own children and the many students I’ve taught, the benefit of the doubt that he really didn’t understand the serious ethical principle involved here: that credible journalists can’t be bought — for any price.

As for the Star story at the heart of this, for me, the journalistic principles at play are more important than the titillating details that already set Toronto society tongues wagging when Graham’s story was published almost two years ago. Suffice to say, though it was a Page 1 story, in the grand scheme of things it is a relatively trivial piece about a fashion faux pas involving a 30-something Toronto socialite and a fancy red ball gown.

The original story was widely circulated through the blogosphere, the source of much snide gossip in Toronto Life’s online comments. Though it is yesterday’s news, in this digital world where news lives forever the incident is apparently a continuing embarrassment for the woman involved.

Google this woman’s name and the Star’s story is one of the first articles to emerge. Thus, it seems, the woman’s father, a successful Toronto developer who was also named in the article, hired webdude to do what he could to make the Star’s story go away.

On Feb. 26, webdude sent Graham a message on Facebook offering him $300 if he would remove the article from The reporter was stunned. Had he agreed to such an outrageous request, that would have been a serious breach of journalistic ethics and the Star’s policies, quite possibly a firing offence.

Here’s what the message said:

“Currently my client is offering me $600 to remove the article through advanced SEO techniques, which is more than possible, however a faster route would be contacting you. So I’m asking if you are able to remove an article in question, and if so I would be willing to give you 50% of my payment as it would expedite my work greatly.”

In an earlier note he sent to Graham’s Toronto Star email, webdude identified the story in question and revealed that he was acting for a client who has “an issue with bad publicity regarding an article that you wrote speculating on a controversial matter over his daughter that brought his name into it. I’m wondering what you’d be willing to do to get this article either taken down or get (my client’s) name taken out of it.”

In a telephone interview with me this week, webdude confirmed he had sent the email and Facebook message and identified his client. He stressed that the man did not authorize him to offer the Star’s reporter cash to make the story go away — nor was his client aware he had done so.

Despite repeated efforts, I was unable to reach this man for comment.

Young webdude says he was hired to do a job of “online reputation management” which, he told me, is basically “getting rid of” editorial content clients would like to see disappear from digital space.

This is not the first time the Star has received a strong appeal to have online content taken down from the web. Not a month goes by that I don’t receive requests to “unpublish” articles from subjects of news stories who are embarrassed or unhappy about a report. The Star’s policy is that we do not unpublish unless there are serious legal reasons for doing do.

Of course, not everyone can afford the services of a “web marketing consultant.” Usually, I communicate directly with those seeking to make news stories go away. Who knew consulting businesses exist to do this for people?

Certainly this marks the first time I know of that anyone has actually offered a payoff to a Star journalist to make embarrassing news disappear from the web.

While we’ve all heard tales of journalists in eras past being offered fistfuls of cash to keep stories out of the newspaper, such blatant bribes are rarely encountered by journalists today.

What concerns me is that young webdude doesn’t even seem to clearly understand the ethical principles here. I have to wonder about the world he operates in.

“I wasn’t trying to pay him off, I offered him an incentive. It’s the real world, money talks,” he told me. “Most of the time, people will look the other way.

“I don’t talk to a lot of reporters. Maybe I didn’t act with the best judgment,” he said.

Uuh, you think?

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on March 11, 2011.

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