Arthur Frommer: USA Today launches site with ethics policy

The giant national newspaper USA Today has just launched a website on cruises that features an 824-word statement on ethics, establishing a draconian policy of separating the website from the cruise lines it covers. People who write for the website — called VacationCruisesInfo.com – are strictly prohibited from accepting free trips from the cruise lines as well as any other gift or benefit. They are similarly prohibited from investing in the cruise line, and if their professional growth requires going on a junket or free cruise, the newspaper must immediately repay the cruise line for the cost of that cruise. The statement, headed with the words “Ethics & How We Review,” is as prominent a part of the new website as any other feature.

By taking this unusual step, USA Today has squarely dealt with a dilemma that confronts any journalist writing about cruises. By contrast, when writers set out to review movies or books or baseball games, they face no such dilemma; they can buy their own $10 tickets to the movie, they can pay for the book or the baseball game, and they needn’t worry about offending the movie producer, the book publisher or the baseball team. The latter have no way to retaliate for a critical review; they have no practical means of blocking the reviewer from the product.

A cruise is entirely different. To review a particular cruise or a cruise line, you have to actually go on that cruise or cruise line, an act that normally costs thousands of dollars. Very few publications are willing to pick up the tab. And if you criticize the cruise or cruise line, you run the risk of being denied a free cruise in the future, thus putting you out of business as a cruise critic. According to the editor of USA Today’s new VacationCruisesInfo.com, who is Gene Sloan, a veteran of more than 60 cruises, USA Today adopted its new policy with eyes wide open.

I recently interviewed him for a radio broadcast, and he was completely forthright about this. He proudly announced that despite the added financial burden that this new policy will place on USA Today, they are willing to accept that heavy cost, and are adamant in refusing to permit their staff to accept free cruises or any other benefit from the cruise line. To police that policy, they will no longer use freelancers to write their cruise reviews. They will rely on longtime staffers whose ethics they can oversee and control. They will even pay out the several thousands of dollars that will be needed to place one of their staff members on one-week sailings of an elegant, upscale cruise line like Seabourn or Seven Seas — a point about which I specifically queried him.

And, he continued, they have now put that policy into effect. VacationCruisesInfo.com will shortly contain highly critical reviews of various cruise lines, and they will be able to print such reviews free of the fear that a less-ethical newspaper would face. Incidentally, Sloan also pointed out that in the future, USA Today will choose only such cruise critics from their staff as are wholly objective about the cruise experience. He will choose critics who will understand that some Americans — not all, but some — are less than thrilled about the tendency of popular cruise lines to transform their ships into amusement parks. Near the end of our interview, he deliberately made that point. His critics will carefully weigh and discuss the fact that some American cruise passengers will love a cruise that other passengers will loathe. So make a point of going to www.vacationcruisesinfo.com and clicking on “Ethics & How We Review.”

It’s quite a statement.