I’M CONFLICTED. On the one hand, I feel strongly that the editor of a magazine should be able to have friends, acquaintances, and organizational ties that are occasionally newsworthy. And just because the editor has newsworthy associations, the magazine should not be precluded from covering a story related to those associations in a fair, thorough, and unbiased way simply because of a presumed conflict of interest.
On the other hand, I’ve watched with great dismay the past few years as journalism’s bad apples have boosted their pals without identifying them as such, filleted their enemies without identifying them as such, profited in secret from the positive press they’ve orchestrated, or otherwise advanced an agenda different from that of serving their readers. All of which has made me a stickler for transparency, not to mention the most honorable behavior.
It’s the latter impulse that causes me to bare all to you, hopefully before you read “The Good Book and the Bad Book”, senior editor John Spong’s piece on the tumult that has engulfed St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, in Austin, which educates the kids of so many of the Capital City’s elites. I’ll spare you the juicy details that caused us to do the story except to say that we knew immediately we had to jump on it; read it and see if you agree. But justified or not, I still have a problem, even though I don’t stand to benefit personally—the traditional definition of conflict of interest—from the decision to publish. To wit:
1. My kids attend another Episcopal school in Austin, and I serve on its board. To call the schools “rivals” would border on the ridiculous, but it’s surely the case that they compete for applicants, fund-raising dollars, and the like. There’s no doubt in my mind that some St. Andrew’s parents who believe our story casts the school in a negative light will wonder if my loyalty to my kids’ school was an issue. (Of course it wasn’t.)
2. The husband of the longtime head of school at St. Andrew’s is the associate rector of the church my family attends.
3. The head of the upper school—a not insignificant player in the story—is a good friend of mine, and her brother is a great friend.
4. A number of my close friends, and several of my Texas Monthly colleagues, either have kids enrolled at St. Andrew’s now or did at one time.
And so on.
To top it off, John has his own set of personal connections to St. Andrew’s, which I didn’t know when I assigned him the story.
What to do in such a case?
The first thing, I think, is ask yourself if the story is indeed a story. This one absolutely is. It’s the talk not just of Austin but of other cities in Texas with tony private schools and also of the nation.
Second, acknowledge whatever real or imagined conflicts exist, even if they have no bearing on the story’s substantive details or point of view. That John has done in the story, and that I am doing here.
Third, recuse yourself if there’s even the slightest chance of compromising the way the story will be judged. I’ve done that too. Other than assigning it, I’ve stayed completely out of it. I did not discuss it with the writer or editor, did not read it until the very end of our production cycle (and even then only because, as editor of the magazine, I’m responsible for everything in every issue), and have limited my comments to matters of factual accuracy.
Fourth, proceed. Report and write the heck out of it, and let the chips fall. I’m expecting to have some unhappy friends when all this is over. They’ll survive, and so will I. John did a great job. The story is accurate and fair. Our readers have been well served, which is my only concern. I’m not even remotely conflicted about that.
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