MEDIA BRANDS: Universal payment to <i>Vanity Fair</i>'s Carter brings up questions about ethics of magazine editors

As this column went to press, a pair of stories on Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter's involvement with Hollywood had just broken.

As this column went to press, a pair of stories on Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter's involvement with Hollywood had just broken.

In similar accounts that ran on May 14, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times both broke the story that Carter had accepted $100,000 from Universal Studios last year for suggesting that the film studio adapt A Beautiful Mind. Something of a bombshell in the media world because of the high profile of the magazine and editor, the stories are sure to make a few waves. After all, the Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley affairs have put journalistic ethics under the microscope and made them more of an issue for public debate than ever before. The central question sure to be asked by media ethicists around the country is, when it comes to an editor's relationship with the industry he or she covers, how close is too close? But there's also a secondary question: Do the ethical duties of a magazine editor differ from that of a newspaper reporter broadly and in terms of the payments and perks that are acceptable? That question already has been broached in regard to the Vanity Fair episode. In the LA Times, Kurt Andersen, Carter's former cohort at Spy Magazine, is quoted as saying, "Undoubtedly, there are deals that shouldn't be made by journalists. But the obligations of a reporter for the Los Angeles Times or New York Times are different from an editor at a magazine or another media entity." This would seem to be a matter for debate. Andersen's appraisal of the situation is a bit too simplistic, as was the response from PR people at Vanity Fair and Condé Nast, who confirmed the payment but were unable to answer questions about whether it violates existing in-house ethical standards. Instead, they said that Carter's higher-ups in the company knew of the payment. That's all well and good, but it doesn't address the expectations of Vanity Fair's readers, one of which, presumably, is that the editorial product they're buying is as free of bias as possible. Sure, Vanity Fair is a media outlet that slobbers over celebrities and does gossipy reports on the criminal misadventures of the wealthy. But it also regularly publishes deeply researched articles on politics, international affairs, and business - serious journalism that's a large part of its attraction. And any notion that its status as a glossy magazine lightens its ethical responsibilities undermines this. This column has repeatedly argued for a more nuanced understanding of journalists as people who exist in real business environments, not in some vacuum free of commercial pressures. But, at the same time, there are lines that need to be established by publications and watched by trade organizations and media ethicists so that there's a framework to regard incidents like these, which aren't as ghastly and obviously wrong as Blair or Kelley's affront to the journalistic process.

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