Has the state of the news biz come to this? Freelance journalists required to sign document forbidding writing anything negative about employers or advertisers before being payed unlivable wage.
Freelance journalist not only asked to work for unlivable wages, but now required to sign away constitutional rights and fundamental ethical journalistic obligations, forbidden to say or write anything negative about their employers or advertisers?
August 21, 2013
An email exchange today between me and a freelance journalist requesting advice, comment, and suggestions after receiving the contract terms for her to write, still on a freelance basis, for a major U.S. news outlet which demanded she sign an agreement which demands she “cannot criticize, ridicule or make any statement” that “which disparages or is derogatory of XXXXXXX, or any of its officers, directors, agents, associates, consultants, contractors, clients, customers, vendors, suppliers or licensees.”
All comments from anyone who has had a similar experience or thoughts on its legality, ethics, precedence or suggestions on how to respond are welcome.
Below is the email exchange in its entirety, with the name of the news organization and journalist redacted at her request.
I am one of the folks who attended your panel at the AEJMC. Since you’re attuned to the freelance world, wondered if you’d heard of media outfits making freelancers sign non-disparagement agreements. A former editor who’s now working with XXXXXXX (a major, national politically oriented news site that is ramping up its breaking news section) contacted me to see if I’d write regularly for them on things I am expert on; but when their HQ in XXXXXX (A U.S. city) sent me a contract for work-for-hire, I was amazed that I had to agree I cannot criticize, ridicule or make any statement “which disparages or is derogatory of XXXXXXX, or any of its officers, directors, agents, associates, consultants, contractors, clients, customers, vendors, suppliers or licensees.”
I informed XXXXXXX’s attorney that this could be several hundred people and that either I need a list of all these folks or they need to change their contract. She told me that this is standard in the freelance world which is nonsense in that I’ve written in the past 18 months for WaPo, the WSJ, CNN.com, the Economist and a bunch of other biggies and I’ve never had to agree to anything like this.
Before I email her to say she’s quite mistaken, wanted to check with someone who also writes for big markets. I know you do not know me, but would you mind telling me if you’ve ever heard of this?
XXXXXXX (Freelance Journalist)
I have indeed never heard of such a thing, and I am guessing I would have. But I could be mistaken.
I can have your question answered, I think quite readily, as one of the side effects of the Atlantic kerfuffle is I have acquired a lot of new freelance friends who follow these issues quite regularly, religiously, and passionately.
My guess? It is XXXXXXXX’s corporate–or more precisely–legal side, that wrote this up on their own without precedent or forethought.
I am sure I can get the right answer and an informed one in a couple of hours if you want me to onpass your question to colleagues–other journos and freelancers. I can of course redact your name and, actually, even the reference to XXXXXXXXX, and I am sure I will have informed replies within a couple of hours.
It is of course, outrageous. The very premise of the function of a press is to not be censored from criticism, wherever it might lead to. Particularly not as formal policy of the news organization itself. And even more disturbing the requirement to write only approved propaganda regarding any advertisers or prominent figures associated in, it seems, any way whatsoever who have a financial or other vested interest in the news organization. Not to mention your own first amendment rights as a citizen, etc. etc.
It more than boggles and even more so disturbing, to say the least.
Let me know. And I hope you are well.
Email reply from the freelance journalist:
Would love to get any react you can. I had no idea who else to ask.
What is so crazy about all this is that XXXXXXXX first tells its writers it will only pay $200 per multi-sourced 800-word+ stories. I worked them up to close to $400 but that is still pennies. If they paid like $2.50/word, heck, I might say yes but for less than 50 cents a word? Really?
Yes, pls leave my name out for now. For XXXXXXXXX, feel free to say it’s a politically oriented news site that is ramping up its breaking news section but wants writers for cheap who are OK with signing away their First Amendment rights.
Thanks for your time,
Any comments, suggestions, or similar experiences and how best to respond are welcome.