Zadie Smith may have crossed some ridiculous ethical boundary when she had lunch with Jay-Z for her T Magazine profile of the rapper, but the Times doesn't seem to care very much.
Smith had lunch with the man formally known as Sean Carter at a "homey" Italian place in Soho that is one of his personal favorites. He orders for people, apparently, and though Smith would like the fish sandwich, which isn't even on the menu but it's one of his favorite dishes. Carter, a zillionaire, picked up the check at the end of the meal.
Here's where it gets fishy. (Ba-dum-psh. I'll show myself out.) Slate's Aisha Harris points out that having a subject buy you a gift, or pick up a check at lunch, is kind-of sort-of against the Times' Policy on Ethics in Journalism. It reads:
Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom.
Should a reporter get offered a gift of some kind, it is advised they politely say no. Smith didn't do that. But! It was just lunch. It was a fish sandwich. It could have been terrible, for all we know. She never says.
When Harris contacted a Times spokesman, their reply was the nicest way anyone's ever said, "meh."
Should she have argued with him, or refused to eat? To suggest that this situation—which she lays out for readers as part of her profile—runs afoul of journalistic ethics strikes me as ridiculous.
If you are reviewing a restaurant and they comp the bill, say no. If you're dining with the closest thing to American royalty not named Kennedy, let the man pick up the bill.