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Ethics and Critics: Conflicts of Interest Infect NY Times Reviews

If a newspaper accepted outside compensation for favorable coverage, that would be clearly be a violation of journalistic ethics—a conflict of interest, potentially compromising the integrity of its reports.

That’s essentially what’s happening, though, on the arts pages of the NY Times, where clickable “FIND TICKETS” buttons have been appended to theater and movie reviews. Clicking the button leads to an online ticket-selling site.

Here’s an image of one example (in the blue box on the right, below):

Here’s what the faint text below the “FIND TICKETS” button says:

Although the Times takes pains to assure us that its reviews are “independent” and that the “primary goal” of the blue button is to “add value to your reading experience,” it also adds value to the newspaper’s income stream.

I think most of my readers already understand why getting an “affiliate commission” for teaming up with the box office (via outside ticket-selling sites) is a no-no. But let me spell it out for you, just in case: The newspaper now has a clear financial incentive to publish and give more prominence to favorable reviews, since pans are not likely to generate much of a desire to “find tickets.” The Times may argue that this is only a perceived conflict of interest, but not an actual one: Its critics are free to say whatever they want.

I say this is a very slippery slope. If the Times still had an in-house Public Editor as its ethics watchdog, she’d probably say the same thing. Unfortunately, they recently got rid of her and eliminated her position.

So far, I have not seen this commercialization of reviews polluting visual arts critics’ appraisals, but it may be only a matter of time before the blue button mars their work too. (Did that Calder review whet your appetite to see the Whitney show? FIND TICKETS). I usually read visual arts reviews online but performing arts reviews in the hardcopy, so I don’t know exactly when this journalistic malpractice started.

What I do know is: It’s got to end. I think the Times’ critics, whose aura of independence is being tainted by the direct commercial tie-ins appended to their reviews, should unite in opposition to this pernicious practice.

an ArtsJournal blog