Should Journalists Make Kickstarter Donations? We Ask Randy Cohen, The (Original) Ethicist and Kickstarter User


It’s been six months since the New York Times Magazine replaced Randy Cohen, the four-time Emmy Award winner who wrote the Ethicist column for 12 years and made the rounds as a congenial moral-principle purveyor everywhere from NPR to Oprah. Since his winter departure, the former Letterman writer has been trying to develop A Question of Ethics, a call-in audio show of “moral advice without a lot of damn moralizing.” The long-term goal appears to be shaping the project into something public radio would sponsor, but in the short-term, Cohen’s taken to crowdsourced-fundraising site Kickstarter in the hopes of financing a kind of radio-show demo, three-months’ worth of weekly 10-minute podcasts.

“Now, having embraced new media–by which I mean, having lost my cushy job at the New York Times,” Cohen cracks in an accompanying Kickstarter video, “I’m reinventing the column as a weekly audio podcast.” He adds that this will be “something a little more conversational” than the print column, “but something I can still undertake without actually shaving everyday.” (Awww, Randy, we miss you.)

So we wrote to Cohen to ask a tangentially related Question of Ethics. Specifically, what are the journalistic ethics of contributing to Kickstarter projects? Can journalists contribute at all or just in areas they don’t cover? A real arts-related example: Silent Barn, a Queens loftspace adored for its DIY shows, recently crowdsourced funding after a robbery; if a music journalist who’d likely review a show there at some point contributed out of love for the venue, would that be a clear conflict of interest?

“I think you’ve got the ethics of journalism issue just right: You can contribute to any worthy cause as long as it’s not something you cover,” Cohen told us over e-mail. “I think that your music journalist should err on the pristine side and not contribute to this venue. There is no shortage of good to be done in the world, and [he/she’d] best do [his/hers] elsewhere.”

Cohen, for his part, also finds himself personally torn about using Kickstarter, specifically the implication that he’s asking pals for donations. “There is an ethics of friendship, and I can’t shake the queasy feeling that I violate it by sponging off my pals, that I am exploiting our relationship for financial gain, that I am a schnorrer,” he tells us, much with the self-depreciating ambivalence we’ve come to expect from the (Original) Ethicist. “And I don’t like it. I’d be delighted if my friends spread the word about my project, and if their friends spread it further still, beyond the narrow bounds of my circle of acquaintances. But I wish my friends would not pledge a dime.”

With less than 24 hours left, the project is pretty far away from its goal of $25,000. (No money changes hands unless the goal is reached.) But plenty of Kickstarter projects don’t get funded the first time around, reconfigure themselves, and then succeed easily. Pretty sure that’s still ethical?

A Question of Ethics Podcast Series with Randy Cohen