CONFLICT OF INTEREST

05.26.11

David Pogue and Nicki Dugan: A Conflict of Interest?

Powerful New York Times tech reviewer David Pogue's new romance with a key Silicon Valley PR executive has many buzzing about a possible conflict of interest.

David Pogue is an incredibly popular technology columnist and one of the most influential gadget gurus in the world. With a column in the New York Times, TV gigs on CNBC, CBS, and PBS, and 1.3 million Twitter followers, Pogue can drive sales of a new gizmo with a few exuberant words or crush a company’s dreams with a thumbs-down on a new product.

But Pogue in the past has landed in hot water for failing to disclose potential conflicts of interest. And he has recently attracted some notoriety after he and his wife, whom he’s divorcing, were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct following an alleged scuffle during a domestic dispute that some reports say involved him hitting his wife with an iPhone.

And now those two issues are converging: Pogue has been dating Nicki Dugan, a vice president at OutCast Agency, a San Francisco PR firm that represents top tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Cisco, Netflix, and Yahoo, since last year. (On April 24, things between them had grown serious enough that Dugan announced their relationship on her Facebook page.)

During the time they’ve been involved, Pogue has written articles about OutCast clients and their competitors without disclosing his personal connection to a senior staffer at the firm.

Pogue’s editor at the New York Times, Damon Darlin, says that Pogue told him about the relationship last December. “He was concerned that there might be a perception of a conflict of interest, so we went over it,” says Darlin, adding that he determined that as long as Pogue didn’t write about companies that Dugan personally represents, there would be no problem. He says he also asked OutCast not to pitch stories to Pogue. “People have romances all the time,” says Darlin. “He hasn’t written about any companies that she is representing.” (Neither Pogue nor Dugan returned a message for comment.)

Romantic involvement with a news source would create the appearance and probably the reality of partiality.

Still, the fact that Pogue frequently wrote stories of great importance to his girlfriend’s firm without disclosure makes some familiar with the details uncomfortable. An in-house tech company public relations executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of rankling Pogue, says the issue is more about disclosure than bias. “What he’s saying is, 'Just trust me. I don’t need to tell you anything. Just trust me.’ But hiding this is a mistake. Pretending it doesn’t matter is a mistake. Perception is reality.” The executive criticized “his potential inability to make a distinction between what he thinks is okay and what the rest of the world does.”

Some examples:

In March, Pogue wrote about Amazon, an OutCast client, calling its new cloud music service “beautifully done” and “ a joy to use.”

Also in March, Pogue wrote about Zediva, a startup that competes with Netflix, which is an OutCast client. Pogue’s review of Zediva was positive in places, but he also criticized Zediva, calling its service “slow to respond,” “frustrating,” and “disappointing,” and describing its website as looking “like one somebody cobbled together in a weekend.”

In February, Pogue hosted a show in the PBS Nova series in which he touted Bloom Energy, a green tech company that was represented by OutCast and was one of Dugan’s main clients at the time. Dugan’s online bio at the agency website touts her role at Bloom, claiming Dugan “was instrumental in launching fuel cell provider Bloom Energy, which debuted on 60 Minutes and received coverage in more than 1,500 stories."

Another of Dugan’s clients is the venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz, which has invested in dozens of top tech companies, including Groupon and Skype, both of whom Pogue has written about in recent months. (His Groupon story ran in February; his story about Skype ran in May.)

In Pogue’s defense, many of these big companies are hard to avoid, and his opinions were not always in lockstep with the wishes of his girlfriend’s firm. In April, Pogue wrote about Cisco, another OutCast client, criticizing it for shutting down the company that made the cool little Flip camera, which Cisco bought in 2009. And the Times’ ethics policy, within a section called “ keeping our detachment,” states that while “Romantic involvement with a news source would create the appearance and probably the reality of partiality,” it’s up to the writer to disclose it to his or her editor, as Pogue did, and that “in some cases, no further action may be needed,” as Darlin decided.

For their part, the top brass at OutCast are unfazed. Alex Constantinople, CEO of OutCast, says Dugan disclosed her relationship with Pogue last December. She says OutCast has no problem with Dugan dating a tech journalist. “She can’t be pitching him stories,” says Constantinople. “And that doesn’t happen. I’m one hundred percent comfortable with it.”

Though Dugan was representing Bloom when Pogue’s PBS show was in production, Constantinople says Dugan did not pitch the story to Pogue and that “when PBS approached Bloom, Nicki and David hadn't met each other yet.” Furthermore, Constantinople says OutCast no longer represents Bloom.

For Pogue, there have been other disclosure incidents. In 2006 CBS News issued an apology after Pogue did a segment on a tech company called DriveSavers without disclosing the fact that the company had repaired his computer at no cost.

In 2009, Pogue was singled out by the paper’s public editor because he was making money writing “Missing Manuals” about tech products and then reviewing the same products in the Times without disclosing his work on the manuals.

Pogue's defense at the time was that he was not actually a journalist, but rather an entertainer. Nevertheless, the Times at that time forced Pogue to start disclosing his “outside activities,” and to let readers know when he is writing a manual for a product he is reviewing.

To be sure, for many of Pogue’s millions of fans, these new details probably won’t change their view of him as perhaps the most trusted mainstream voice on tech gadgets. Pogue remains a first-rate writer and an engaging public speaker, with a reputation for calling them as he sees them.

But that’s why the lack of transparent disclosure seems unusual, especially within the context of the New York Times, which has stringent policies about disclosing conflicts of interest. Last year the paper appended an “editor’s note” to a column by business writer Joe Nocera after he wrote about a lawsuit and failed to mention that his fiancee was employed by one of the law firms involved. The editor’s note said Nocera was not aware of the conflict when he wrote the column and that “he would not have written about the case if he had known of the law firm’s involvement.”

Dan Lyons is technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs, the persona behind the notorious tech blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Before joining Newsweek, Lyons spent 10 years at Forbes.