NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Bambi Francisco, who resigned as a MarketWatch Internet columnist Friday, now represents a cautionary tale in journalism.
Her story underscores the point -- yes, again -- that journalists can get into trouble when we mistakenly come to think we're players in our sources' worlds. Sometimes, we can identify too strongly with them as we glimpse their lives of affluence and power. We can delude ourselves into concluding that we, too, deserve to be wealthy beyond any reasonable expectations. "Hey, if they can do it, so can I."
Not so fast, Scoop. When the people we meet on the job start waving cash and generally enriching us, we've forever crossed an ethical boundary.
"Dow Jones demands the highest journalism standards at our own publications and services, as reflected by our strict code of conduct," said L. Gordon Crovitz, publisher of the Wall Street Journal and executive vice president of Dow Jones & Co., in a statement Friday. "Our MarketWatch reporter Bambi Francisco started Vator.tv on her own time with our approval, under certain guidelines on permitted areas of coverage. Bambi has decided to pursue her enterprise full-time."
The Wall Street Journal, which like MarketWatch is published by Dow Jones , had reported earlier Friday that MarketWatch "had come under scrutiny for allowing a Silicon Valley reporter [Francisco] to invest in a Web concern that deals with Internet startups."
In the Journal piece, MarketWatch Editor-in-Chief David Callaway confirmed Francisco's investment in Vator.tv, a video site intended to connect entrepreneurs with venture capitalists. An online-news site operated by CNet had posted a story on her involvement Thursday.
The Journal pointed out that Callaway said he approved the investment on the condition that Francisco "not write about that company, its investors or the companies using Vator.tv."
Still, the newspaper said, Francisco wrote several stories that appeared to violate Callaway's stipulations.
"I complied [with] the rules to the best of my ability," Francisco asserted during an 11-minute phone interview with me Friday morning, before she officially left MarketWatch.
"I got the approval in September to own and operate this [Vator.tv]," she commented. "I used very good common sense about the decisions I had to make."
Francisco also said that if she ever had to face a situation pitting her interests in MarketWatch against those in Vator, "my allegiance was always to MarketWatch." She contended that it's "entirely incorrect or inaccurate" for anyone to speculate that she would allow her sources to believe they would receive coverage on MarketWatch if they contributed to Vator.tv.
Now Francisco is gone, but some lessons still have resonance.
Above all, journalists should not allow themselves to be put into a situation where there's even a suggestion of a conflict of interest. Francisco could have used much better judgment. Like I said, hers is a cautionary tale.
As much as a reporter could be a star in the moneyed world of Silicon Valley, Francisco was just that: a celebrity journalist. Shame on her if establishing a following in that go-go world wasn't enough to satisfy her ego.
Good journalism = good business
Money can be very tempting.
A few years ago, Thom Calandra, the former editor of MarketWatch, ran into trouble as a newsletter writer for this Internet site. He settled charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission and paid $540,000 in connection with allegations that he used his investment letter to hype stocks he owned and planned to sell.
Even when the favors don't result in a higher tax bracket, we can run into trouble. Look at the example of Maria Bartiromo. A few months ago, the CNBC anchor faced conflict-of-interest accusations in connection with a source and friend from Citigroup Inc. , having hopped n the company's corporate jet from Beijing to New York, among other issues.
The Los Angeles Times, a property of Tribune Co. , also was the subject of a recent ethics-related fuss. The paper invited Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer to guest-edit its Current section. Then there was an outcry because the Current editor apparently was dating one of Grazer's publicists. Worried about the conflict-of-interest cloud, the Times withdrew its offer to Grazer.
Do practitioners of my chosen trade ever learn our lesson? It's dangerous to create an appearance of a conflict of interest. Ethics are crucial. Forget money or prizes or power. All journalists really have is our integrity.
The public has to feel comfortable that it can believe whatever we write and say. We should have one agenda: serving its needs with our presentation of information and analysis.
Employers also have a responsibility in maintaining ethical standards. Companies must be vigilant to protect the interests of their readers and viewers. It's also good business to look trustworthy. It would be unfortunate if MarketWatch gave Francisco special treatment of any kind because she had emerged as a Silicon Valley icon.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think journalism is a pretty cool business -- long hours, low pay, lack of appreciation and all. You get to be creative on a good day. You can even make a difference in people's lives. At the very least, you're informing them, and that is no small accomplishment. Plus, it's a hell of a lot of fun. Any journalist should be proud to be a part of this world.
But if you secretly yearn to be a player, I have some advice: Take a sabbatical.
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do you think journalists have a strong ethical sense?
MONDAY REPORT CARD: The coverage of new Tribune owner Sam Zell was fun to read. There was a lot of breast-beating by media members about what Zell might do now. I still don't understand, though, why he thinks Tribune is a great investment. Can someone please tell me?
THE READERS RESPOND to a column about CNN: "They should change the name of the show to 'American Mourning.' " -- Bruce Reznick
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By Jon Friedman