What’s my story? I don’t care much about journalistic ethics
August 6, 2009
So here’s the story: Barry Smith and his hired goons basically insist that I write a story about “What’s Your Story?” a show that Smith is producing, and is featured in, for Theatre Aspen’s Sunday Series. (Full disclosure: Smith’s “hired goons” are actually one publicist, Jennifer Slaughter, who is slim, sweet and elegant, and if I were ever to have some fingers broken, she’d be my person of choice to do the breaking.) (Full disclosure: Smith and I are friends, who occasionally share observations on the world and pulled pork sandwiches at Hickory House.) (Full disclosure: That was a shameless plug for Hickory House, Aspen’s outstanding barbecue joint, located at the end of Main Street, just before the ‘S’ curves.) (Full disclosure: That was another.)
Normally, I would have no problem with Smith’s request. (Full disclosure: In fact, it was a demand.) I have covered everything Smith has done, from his poetry collection “Ode to Mustard” to his “Seuss-a-Palooza” events to the one-person shows he has performed from Aspen to Saskatoon to New York City. I would have covered them even if Smith and I were not friends, because his work is fantastic and there’s no other local doing original theater that is being produced around the continent.
There is one very large problem. (Two if you count the fact that I’m lazy and overworked and underpaid and it’s the middle of the Aspen summer and the last thing I want is another assignment on my plate.) Before insisting that I cover the event, Smith invited me to be in the event. Which I accepted.
Yes, you got it: I am covering an event as a journalist that I am participating in as a performer. I never took a class in journalism ethics (or any other field of journalism), have never seen the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics (they don’t hand you a copy when you take your first crummy-paying job in this godforsaken industry), nor read that list of Conflict of Interest rules issued by the corporation for which I work. (Full disclosure: I did, though, sign the statement saying, yes, I agree to all the above rules, and have broken a good number of them.) But I have to imagine this is one of the first things I’d have learned had I done any of the above.
It’s not as if I haven’t done something like this before. And no, I’m not referring to last week’s cover story I wrote about the Basalt production of “The Sound of Music,” in which my daughter participated. But there I saw myself on safe ground: She was in the chorus, part of a cast of 85, I made no mention of how phenomenal she was (really outstanding), and didn’t run any photos of her.
Two years ago I had an exhibition of my photography at a gallery at Aspen Highlands. What I didn’t have was Barry Smith with a gun to my head, telling me I had to cover it. Of course not; he wasn’t involved. So I modestly approached my editors, told them about the event, said there was no way I was going to write about myself. BUT … if someone else on the newspaper staff thought it a worthy story, I would consent to giving an interview. John Colson, who had enough years in this business to know better, stepped forward and wrote a very nice article which we wisely placed well towards the back of the paper….
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And then Joel Soroka, owner of the eponymous Aspen photography gallery, wrote a very un-nice letter to the editor, complaining about the article. I confess fully to the validity of his point: Why did I, a first-time exhibitor, merit a story when his world-class artists were for the most part ignored by The Aspen Times? Soroka’s point was so good that he wrote another letter to the editor on the same topic. Then another. Then another. And, if I’m not mistaken, a fifth. We ran them all. Everyone laughed about the lunacy of it and assumed I was seething at Soroka, but he was right. Not long afterward, I began covering Soroka’s gallery better than ever before and we are on very good terms. I guess the lesson of the story is that good things do come out of shameless ethical breaches.
So what’s the upside here (aside from, I hope, a flood of letters to the editor that eat up space in the paper and give us a good laugh)? Well, let’s assume that, thanks to this story, more people turn out to see a most promising event. What’s Your Story? features eight local folk – three musicians (Jeannie Walla, Dan Sadowsky, Sandy Munro), a sheriff (Bob Braudis), a novelist (Clifford Irving), an actor (Janice Estey), a “non-practicing, highly trained actor” (Jordan Dann), an arm-twisting humorist (Smith), and a journalist not especially bound to ethics (yours truly) – telling stories, ranging in subject from road trips to forest fires to an epi-tragic mountain bike ride. True-life stories. Good ones. With no notes. Between 3 and 10 minutes long. (Full disclosure on behalf of Smith: The What’s Your Story concept was ripped-off from the Moth, which travels from one New York City venue to another, and has featured Moby, Lewis Black, Buck Henry and William Baldwin.)
Before we get all huffy about this latest case of blatant self-promotion, let’s at least establish some boundaries. I get no money for this gig. Smith has assured me I will be fed, and if someone presses this matter, I agree to donate my share of pizza to a good cause. Make that half my pizza. And if tradition holds, Theatre Aspen will throw in more Oh Yeah! candy bars than it is healthy for me to have around.
And did I mention that Smith is a columnist for this very paper? (Full disclosure: He is.)
P.S. Rock and roll photography for sale: The Dead, Marleys, Fogerty, Winwood, Petty, Dylan, Gov’t Mule, many more. Great prices. Call now and ask about our 2-for-1 sale. 429-9151. Ask for Stewy.