Back in the day, when I was a freelance journalist for the local paper, I had an editor who was a rare bird indeed. He was a stickler for ethics. One of the first things he told me was that, as journalists, we could not accept gifts from anyone involved in any of our stories.

“Of course not,” I thought to myself, barely imagining that this was a thing, let alone a thing that might actually pertain to me.

But it was.

Now lest you think I was writing any nitty-gritty, hard-hitting exposés, I should disavow you of that notion. I was not. Rather, I wrote for the lifestyle section of the paper; human-interest stories and the like. You would hardly think there would be temptation there…and yet there was.

It took some time before the offers came in, but they did. Now, to be clear, these were offers of goods or services from people whom I had already written about in the paper; they weren’t seeking to curry favor but rather trying to show appreciation, which was nice. As a journalist making pennies per word, the offers were sometimes tempting; never sizable enough to induce guilt, but a little extra “bonus” as it were. It was that exact thought that made me stiffen my spine and reject any such offers, well-meaning as they might have been.

You see, my editor insisted that any such gifts would compromise our journalistic integrity, and he was right.

Suppose I wrote about a bakery, and they then offered me a free cake. I like cake. I am now a bit more kindly disposed toward this particular bakery, over any others. After all…free stuff, right?

But it’s not really free. It comes with a gossamer invisible string that runs from me to the bakery owner; a silken thread of obligation. It may never have been stated, but come on – we’re all humans. We know it’s there!

So now I’ve accepted this free cake, and so far, nothing bad has come of it (except a few hundred empty calories, but hey, who’s counting?)

So when the next free offer comes along…say, a massage from a local day spa, suddenly it doesn’t seem as taboo. (Slippery slope in action.) So I accept the massage, because hard-working journalist and all that.

This is just paving the path to my corruption.

Now the baker calls me up with a “story idea” featuring his bakery, and I feel a little bit in his debt because of the free cake, but I also wonder about what I might get for free if I do a whole article about him…so I do. And I ignore that I’ve heard that his quality has slipped, or that the place seemed a bit less clean than when I was there last, and write about how great he is anyway, because quid pro quo.

Now that may not seem like such a big deal, but RIGHT THERE is where compromise starts. RIGHT THERE is where I’ve decided that my own personal interests are more important than the collective interests of my readership. Integrity gone.

And I was just a journalist for a small, local paper.

Imagine if something like this were to happen to a politician?

*no journalistic ethics were compromised in the writing of this post.