“An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy.” — Thomas Jefferson
BOSTON — Austin, Texas, is 165 miles from Houston but it turns out its journalistic problems aren’t very far off.
In November 2018, the Houston Chronicle revealed that an investigation showed that one its reporters, Mike Ward, had been quoting people who didn’t exist. The daily newspaper reviewed more than 700 stories written by Ward and determined that 44 percent of his sources couldn’t be located. The Chronicle subsequently retracted eight stories.
Ward had been the Chronicle’s Austin bureau chief covering the Texas capital and all-important workings of the state Legislature. He resigned his position in September 2018 after being confronted about sourcing concerns. Yet, Chronicle editor Nancy Barnes ordered the investigation by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and promised to make the findings very public because Ward’s resignation wasn’t enough, Barnes wrote.
“As a journalism organization, we owe the public more,” she wrote. “We owe our readers the truth and to tell you if, in fact, there were inaccuracies in anything we published. … When this investigation is complete, we will publish a full accounting of our findings. We owe our readers nothing less.”
Other media outlets such as The Associated Press, the Austin American-Statesman and CBS News reported on the incident with headlines that referred to broken trust. It’s a valid sentiment and admirable attention, but largely window dressing amid media companies that frequently use non-disclosure agreements to cover up wrongdoing.
It’s not enough to focus on the misdeeds of one reporter if the same type of scrutiny isn’t applied to media executives who control hundreds of reporters and betray the public’s trust by taking the same type of apparent shortcuts as Ward. One unscrupulous media exec can do more damage than 100 Mike Wards.
The nation’s journalism groups should be holding media companies accountable for misguided, short-sighted decisions. Such groups and university journalism programs need to scrutinize managers to uphold the standards Americans have come to expect. If execs drop the ball, inform the public. Let subscribers and advertisers weigh in with their buying power
In April 2018, we recounted the details of a grotesque case of corporate censorship in Austin.
The events started in mid-2015, when an Austin Business Journal manager said Dell Technologies Inc. threatened the ABJ’s parent company, American City Business Journals, over its enterprise pieces. The ABJ had been running Dell stories that went beyond company-issued news releases, and Dell objected to such coverage.
ACBJ execs buckled under the pressure. Tweets were deleted, a story disappeared, media credentials were denied by Dell and the reporter assigned to Dell was suddenly given an unscheduled performance review stating that his job was in jeopardy despite the lack of inaccuracies or a single human resources concern during 10 years with the company. It then tried to cover its tracks by tying the reporter’s severance package to a non-disclosure agreement.
Effectively, Dell Technologies, in collusion with a national media company, successfully targeted a reporter who had written hundreds of articles about Dell and was awarded the ACBJ’s highest honor in 2012 citing the close coverage despite pressure from Dell public relations office. (More than 700 stories listed under this reporter’s byline referenced Dell).
ACBJ CEO Whitney Shaw (left) later told Talking Biz News the matter was “a personnel issue.” When a media company submits to pressure and deletes a story because it’s inconvenient to a corporate bully, that’s called censorship. It’s not a personnel issue.
At first blush, the incident — much like the Watergate burglary — may appear to be of minor consequence. But censorship at ACBJ has national implications.
The North Carolina-based company operates dozens of publications in the U.S., including 43 business journals with 3.6 million readers. The company is also affiliated with prestigious magazines such as The New Yorker through a mutual parent company, New York-based Advance Publications Inc.
National Public Radio cites ACBJ reports on its news programs and the public justifiably believes it’s receiving fully reported, objective coverage, not sanitized news. Also, Advance Publications is a major supporter of one of the nation’s premiere journalism programs at Syracuse University.
Such programs need to step up and shine a light on violations of basic journalistic ethics. If not, public trust may eventually become more than just broken; it’ll be irreparable.