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Is There Such Thing As A Free Munchkin?

A number of commenters are complaining about "Evening News" anchor Katie Couric eating free munchkins. I kid you not. Here's the deal: As Greg Kandra posted over at Couric & Co., Couric mentioned earlier this week that she was "nursing a cup of French vanilla Dunkin' Donuts coffee. And munchkins." Someone at Dunkin' apparently took notice, because they sent over "a gazillion Munchkins -- boxes of them, along with crates of piping hot coffee." (It was a few less than a gazillion, actually -- about 10 big boxes of Munchkins and four or five big cardboard boxes of coffee. Plus cups.) Couric and the rest of the "Evening News" staff chowed down and drank up.

Then the complaints came in. "A honorable journalist would have said thank you and turn[ed] the munchkins back," wrote rmichem. "The whole affair gives the impression of being paid off…I was under the impression that CBS had standard[s] for getting gifts." Added joycewest: "I agree with rmichem about the donuts. News blogs shouldn't use brand names or accept free goodies."

According to CBS News Standards, "CBS News employees may not solicit, accept or agree to accept anything of value given or paid for the purpose of influencing the content of any CBS News broadcast." I was unable to reach CBS News Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects Linda Mason for further comment today, but here's my two cents. A strict media ethicist could plausibly argue that the "Evening News" violated standards by accepting the coffee and munchkins. At the same time, it's pretty obvious that the real "value" of the stuff is pretty negligible. And I have a hard time seeing how such a gift would influence the broadcast. Does anyone really think the "Evening News" would kill or fail to commission a story critical of Dunkin' Donuts over this morning's gift?

What it comes down to is this: Can we apply common sense in situations like this, or must we hue to the strictest possible interpretation of the standards? If Dunkin' was sending breakfast over every morning, it would clearly be inappropriate. But a small, one-time gift in response to an offhand comment in a blog post? It seems to be the kind of thing we should chalk up to a one-off gesture and forget about. Or have I been hopelessly corrupted by that pile of munchkins?

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