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Conflict in Plane Sight

Many journalists face less-exciting ethical crises than the one that confronted Maria Bartiromo. But at the bottom line, the problem is the same: Can reporters accept gifts or special kindnesses from sources and still cover them objectively? And even if they can, doesn't such largess leave the appearance of conflict, which can be just as damaging?

In Bartiromo's case, the situation is more complicated because it was played out so publicly and because she's “Money Honey” Maria—and has applied to trademark that nickname—not some homely, number-crunching “Melvin Bartiromo.” Last week, Citicorp dismissed Todd Thomson, its wealth-management chief, in part because of his extravagant spending. That included using the corporate jet to take her to several Citicorp functions—including one in China in which Thomson reportedly left subordinates on the ground while he and Bartiromo flew home.

Sometimes she was a featured speaker. Also, Citicorp reportedly invested $5 million in a sponsorship for a Sundance Channel series on which Bartiromo was to co-host.

CNBC says it approved the trips and paid for them. The business network defended her strongly and pointed out that, last year, Bartiromo “made 46 public appearances on behalf of CNBC.”

That's where this story gets most interesting. Bartiromo is CNBC's best-known personality so the network would like to have her “fly the flag” for them as often as possible.

But as a business journalist, Bartiromo must separate the celebrity version of herself from the journalistic one, who cannot even leave the appearance of favoring one company or another. CNBC must also vigorously apply that standard. A decade ago, ABC News began scrutinizing whom its reporters addressed after a Chicago Tribune reporter regularly chronicled the influential organizations the Cokie Roberts took money from in return for her speeches.

A private-plane trip with a top executive can give reporters insight and information that they would never get over lunch. Good journalists do take those trips (sometimes with artificially low airfare arrangements). Journalists say they can't be bought for a plane trip. We wonder what the public thinks.

If Bartiromo's bond with Citicorp was unusual enough that it influenced the decision to fire a top executive, she and CNBC had gone too far. The incident is a timely reminder that, for many, perception is reality. Many CNBC viewers will think that way the next time Bartiromo reports on Citicorp—if ever.