I really didn't want to say any more about the Enron advisory board issue - I've already posted quite a lot of information here . I don't have anything to hide, but my job at the New York Times is to write about real issues, not myself. Still, the story keeps popping up.
Let me give the people bringing this up the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that they really are concerned about journalistic ethics. That's certainly a valid subject. It's important that a national publication like the New York Times insist that its journalists be free from conflicts of interest; kudos to my employers for their strict rules, which insist that writers be free from anything that might raise questions - rules that I have followed from the moment I joined the Times. It's also important for a journalist to disclose previous connections where they are relevant - which I have.
But somehow this keeps shifting from a real discussion of journalistic ethics, the guidelines that publications should adopt and that writers should follow, to a prurient fascination with other peoples' paychecks. If that's all that it's about, then it's tabloid journalism, not a real attempt to grapple with the issue.
Lately I find myself presumed guilty of an ethics violation simply because I was paid for my time. All that anyone wants to talk about is $50,000 (which turns out to be wrong - see below). There is such a thing as earning money honestly; if you want to challenge a journalist's ethics, you have to ask not how much he was paid but when, for what, and whether it distorted his writing. It's particularly important to get the context right when the person in question had a successful non-journalistic career before he went into journalism - which I did.
Too much of what I read about myself doesn't get even the most basic facts right. Critics imply, falsely, that I received money from Enron as a New York Times columnist - that I was receiving a bribe because of a prominent journalistic position that I did not in fact have at the time (unlike the other journalists who have served on that board, who held the same jobs then that they do today). They don't acknowledge that I disclosed my connection almost three years ago, and again a year ago. And they don't acknowledge that I have been criticizing Enron since January 2001, long before everyone else started bashing the company.
By all means let's have a discussion about journalistic ethics; Enron has made us all a lot more conscious of ethical issues involving business. But a game of gotcha, in which anyone who received money from Enron is lumped in with the genuine malefactors in this story, does nothing to improve journalistic integrity - on the contrary, it's counterproductive.
To make it easier for anyone who is still interested in this story to get the facts right, here are some frequently asked questions about my role on the Enron advisory board, with answers.
1. What did I do? In early 1999 I was asked to serve on a panel that offered Enron executives briefings on economic and political issues. As far as I knew at the time, they genuinely wanted to learn something. I resigned from that board in the fall of 1999, when I accepted an offer to write for the New York Times.
2. What was I paid? It turns out that I was actually paid $37,500 - the last quarterly payment did not take place, because of my early resignation from the board.
3. Was this exorbitant? It didn't seem so at the time. In 1998-1999 my normal fee for a one-hour business speech in Boston or New York was $20,000 - more if the speech involved long-distance travel. The Enron board required that I spend 4 days in Houston. So the sum they offered didn't seem out of line - if anything it seemed rather low compared with my usual rates.
4. Was I being paid off because I was a journalist? That Enron board, when I was on it, did not strike me as a board of pundits. It included Larry Lindsey and Bob Zoellick - future Bush administration officials, though I had no way of knowing that, but certainly not journalists. It also included Pankaj Ghemawat, a strategy professor at Harvard, and Irwin Stelzer, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute. (Stelzer had a column in the London Times, but I didn't know that) The only person there I thought of as a journalist was William Kristol - I thought he was there to regale us with Washington gossip. And I regarded myself as being in the same category as Ghemawat - an academic expert, who was there because of his expertise.
An amazing number of people seem to think that I was paid by Enron while working for the Times. I wasn't - when Enron approached me there was no hint that a Times connection lay in my future. As soon as I shook hands with the Times, I resigned from that board.
I did write monthly columns for two magazines in 1999, but I would not have described myself as a journalist - no more so than, say, Laura Tyson, Robert Barro, or or Gary Becker, respected economists who write monthly columns for Business Week. I wrote a monthly column for Fortune; that column was neither a major commitment of time nor a major source of income. I also wrote a monthly column, for very little money, for Slate. My main sources of income were teaching, consulting, and business speaking.
5. Did I disclose my connection? Yes. I reported it the one time I mentioned Enron in Fortune, almost three years ago. I reported it again the first time I mentioned Enron in the New York Times, in a highly critical article more than a year ago. I didn't say that I was paid to serve on the board, but I thought that was obvious: who volunteers his services to for-profit corporations?
One point that seems to have been missed in all the mud-slinging: I was the only member of the board to declare my connection voluntarily. Lindsey and Zoellick, as government officials, were required to disclose their consulting; none of the other members uttered a peep before the January 2002 New York Times article about the board.
6. Should I have disclosed the sum of money I received? I have always understood that when writing about someone you disclose the fact of a potential conflict of interest, not the financial details. If I had disclosed the sum back in January 2001, when I first wrote about Enron for the New York Times, it would have sounded strange - I'm sure people would have accused me of bragging.
7. Did the payment from Enron cause me to write anything I would not have written otherwise? No. Some people seem to think that because I had nice things to say about Enron's energy trading in a Fortune article - in which I disclosed my connection - I was being out of character. But I have always been a free-market Keynesian: I like free markets, but I want some government supervision to correct market failures and ensure stability. Some of my pro-market Slate pieces enraged people on the left - check out The accidental theorist , or In praise of cheap labor . My Fortune piece about the rise of markets, illustrated by Enron's energy trading, was an attempt to take a sunshine break from the dark pieces I had been writing about the Asian crisis; it was also a favor to my editors, who devoted that issue to e-business. It wasn't at all out of character. In fact, the next column I wrote for Fortune was also a pro-market piece, with kind words for Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher.
8. Was Enron trying to buy my soul? That's for them to answer.
But I wasn't selling.