Tepid Colorado Democratic Senator Michael Bennet is reportedly mulling a presidential run. If he does run, his brother James has said he will recuse himself from his duties as New York Times editorial page editor. Alternately: James Bennet never should have been hired in the first place.
It is fundamentally stupid to hire a direct family member of a prominent politician to a high-level journalism job. This is a common sense observation. Is it a conflict of interest if you are the opinion editor of America’s most influential media outlet, and your brother is a sitting U.S. Senator? Yes. It is a conflict of interest. Is it a conflict of interest if you are a national cable news anchor frequently covering politics and your brother is the sitting governor of New York? Yes. It is a conflict of interest. Your professional journalistic obligation—to speak the truth no matter what—quite clearly presents a potential conflict with your human obligation to love and support your family member. (Even opinion journalists are obligated to pursue truth rather than family loyalty.) That is what a conflict of interest is. To say “But I’m a good person who will tell the truth anyhow, you can trust me,” does zero, nothing, to change the fact of the existence of the conflict of interest. The entire concept of “avoiding conflicts of interest” means that you do not allow situations to arise in which a clear conflict of interest exists. It does not mean that you simply wave away the conflict of interest with the assurance that, in this case, you can trust the people involved. That is garbage. Hiring a politician’s family member for an important journalism job is obviously a conflict of interest, and attempts to argue otherwise do little but expose the person making such an argument as insincere.
Pointing out that James Bennet should not have his job because him having his job creates a permanent conflict of interest is a simple thing that most honest people in journalism are smart enough to understand. The only reason people are not saying it all the time is that most people in journalism would like the opportunity to write for the New York Times op-ed page one day. (So would I!) Even the New York Times itself understands that it has a conflict of interest on its hands. They simply choose to ignore it. See here: If James Bennet’s brother runs for president, James Bennet is expected to recuse himself from working on anything “substantially related to candidates or major issues in the campaign.” Yet when James Bennet’s brother is running for or serving in the US Senate, no such recusal is required of James Bennet. Do US Senators, unlike presidential candidates, not participate in competitive campaigns, defined by controversial issues, many of which are written about in the New York Times editorial section? I guess not. You learn something new every day.
It is exceedingly easy for major media outlets to avoid this particular conflict of interest. The way to do that is: Do not hire family members of politicians for important journalism jobs. It is, really, very easy. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of intelligent and well qualified people who could capably handle the job of New York Times editorial page editor, or cable news anchor. You can find such intelligent and capable people at smaller, lesser known news outlets throughout the nation. So why doesn’t the New York Times just hire one of the many, many other people who could do James Bennet’s job and who do not have an enormous, flashing conflict of interest? Because, I am sad to say, prestige media outlets place a high value on things like attending St. Albans and attending Yale and editing The Atlantic and even, yes, being from the sort of family that might have a US Senator in it, like James Bennet. This is a profound flaw in the prestige media and the biggest single problem at places like the New York Times, which produce much great work but are horribly afflicted by this classist, establishmentarian blind spot. In a sense, it is not surprising—at an institution where the publisher’s seat is passed down through a single family’s royal bloodline, the illusion that elite credentials equal merit is completely in line with the interests of the place.
I wish to make the basic point here that media outlets need not subject themselves to this insane conflict of interest. They can make a very slight change in their hiring practices and avoid it forever. There is secondary, less important but supporting point to be made as well, which is that James Bennet is not even good at his job. This, too, is not very controversial among people who are familiar with the range of opinion writing available in America, especially online. It is not a statement about where the NYT lands on the political spectrum; it is just an acknowledgment that no honest person can look at the roster of New York Times opinion columnists and believe that it is anything other than a few bright spots atop a mountain of mediocrity and a base of utter, broken-down hackdom. This, despite the fact that the New York Times can hire almost any writer it wants. Bennet has not done a good job in putting the team together, I’m afraid. If he were a baseball coach he would have been fired after his third or fourth sub-.500 season. But at the New York Times, he can carry on his poor performance for an infinite amount of time, because he is the Platonic Ideal of what the Sulzberger family believes that an editorial page editor should be.
In any case, I do not want to get sidelined by the fact that James Bennet should be fired for performance reasons. James Bennet—and his fellow siblings of major politicians—never should have been hired in the first place, because of the inherent conflict of interest that cannot be overcome. (The conflict of interest that this Very Serious And Ethical institution staunchly ignores every day.) Yes, this is a tragedy. But the New York Times will just have to settle for one of the hundreds and hundreds of people who can do the job better.