Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Premature betrayal

Staffers and readers worried that Rupert Murdoch might ruin the good name of the Wall Street Journal already have been betrayed by the editor who sat on the story of the $5.5 billion bid for their company.

The embarrassment seemed acute enough when CNBC last week broke the news that News Corp. was offering to buy Dow Jones, the parent of such ordinarily intrepid financial news organizations as the Journal, Barron’s and MarketWatch.

But the back story, as reported today in the New York Times, was far worse. A few days after Murdoch offered secretly to buy DJ on April 17, he sent Managing Editor Paul Steiger a “Personal and Confidential” email “offering his reassurances that he would uphold the editorial integrity of The Journal if he were successful,” according to the Times.

Paul decided sit on the blockbuster news, instead of pursuing it with the vigorous effort that doubtless would have been triggered by any other “Personal and Confidential” email from any other CEO wanting to buy any other company.

A well-regarded editor who heretofore has led his staff with distinction, Paul told the Times that he went silent because he didn’t want to betray Rupert’s confidence.

Sorry, but this doesn’t wash.

An editor properly doing his or her job will come into contact with newsmakers involved in all aspects of community life. It is altogether fitting and appropriate that editors and newsmakers may discuss any number of of potentially newsworthy topics. People who talk with editors know full well who they are and what they do. They shouldn't say anything to editors that they don't want to see in print.

Most newsmakers actually love access to editors, hoping they can can use the relationship to spin coverage in their preferred direction. But some newsmakers try to innoculate themselves from coverage by telling an editor something in confidence that they don't want to see in print.

That's evidently what Murdoch did in this case. Paul shouldn't have let him get away with it, espcially since the "confidential" email evidently arrived unsolicited and without the sort of prior agreement that a reporter might give a whistleblower providing key information for a sensitive story.

Paul admittedly was put in a tough position by Murdoch. But any editor worth his salt should have found a way to put his staff onto the story without revealing his confidential knowledge.

As long as the story had been developed independently through third-party sources, Paul would have been ethically in the clear with Rupert, his staff and his readers. Instead, Paul is heading into his previously scheduled retirement this month with a most unsavory episode punctuating an otherwise distinguished career.

The irony in this case is that there was a simple solution to Paul’s ethical dilemma. All he had to do was ask one of his sub-editors to look into the unusual frenzy of trading in Dow Jones options that began in the middle of April.

Had they done so, the reporters would have discovered that their own company was in play. And they also might have unearthed the alleged insider-trading case that's sure to produce some interesting reading in the months ahead.


Blogger Richard Jennings said...

FYI - you can get free access to those wall street journal article from http://www.congoo.com

6:34 PM  

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