Reporter’s Commentary: Might Does Not Make Right, Even in The Fake News Era

BOSTON — Might makes right.

That’s what a small faction, not all, of corporate America believes. Recent incidents show that there’s still a willingness to go to almost any length to sanitize the truth and withhold facts from those who deserve nothing less — Americans.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recounted this month how chemical giant Monsanto did everything it could to discredit reporters and activists trying to expose how the company’s Roundup product was potentially connected to cancer and other health problems.

Germany-based Bayer AG, Monsanto’s parent company, acknowledged in May that it enlisted a public relations firm to target anyone who spread the word about the possible dangers of Roundup. Lives were at stake and former Reuters reporter Carey Gillam wrote about it in August.

Last year, CNN reported that Bloomberg News reassigned its banking reporter after the CEO of Wells Fargo & Co. complained about close coverage.

In July, New York-based Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a 33-year-old watchdog group, exposed how the parent of company of Reddit and New Yorker magazine threatened this reporter who revealed a flagrant case of corporate censorship in Austin, Texas, involving Dell Technologies Inc.

Why care? Because such incidents are antithetical to American values based on the understanding that any imbalance of power is dangerous. Checks and balances are baked into our democratic system for that very reason. Remember the role reporters played in Watergate, the Catholic priest scandal, Harvey Weinstein, Theranos Inc.?

Admiral William McRaven, former chancellor of the University of Texas System, said last year, “When you undermine the people’s right to a free press and freedom of speech and expression, then you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands.”

Reddit readers justifiably questioned whether corporate execs actually care what is reported in regional news outlets versus national publications. Although there is little hard proof, there are valid indicators that Del execs are unusually petty and thin skinned.

For example, Dell’s chief marketing officer wrote a 2014 letter to the editor after the Austin Business Journal accurately reported that Dell’s annual users conference would lack a star keynote speaker like Bill Clinton or Elon Musk in previous years.

Dell execs even take issue with tweets posted on a reporter’s personal account with direct messages sent via Twitter — after business hours. If that’s not enough, they simply deny the reporter credentials to company events.

Predictably, companies dislike censorship stories because they make it look like the companies have something to hide, which they sometimes do. Media execs don’t like such stories either because they can make them appear less than credible, which they sometimes are.

As a result, media outlets tie severance packages to non-disclosure agreements to discourage journalists from exposing incidents that fall short of the American ideals cited by McRaven. That’s notable because might certainly does not make right.

Austin deserves better; Austinites deserve the truth.

 

Presidential advisor Conway aided Cambridge manslaughter defense team in 2004

Before she became a presidential aide, Kellyanne Conway was a footnote in a long-running saga in Cambridge criminal justice: She sold her polling services to Alexander Pring-Wilson, the Harvard graduate student who pleaded guilty to manslaughter for his role in the April 2003 stabbing death of a Cambridge teen.

A recently uncovered report shows that Conway, now a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, completed a survey identifying the most advantageous venue for Pring-Wilson’s trial. A 25-year-old Colorado native, he had been arrested after Cambridgeport resident Michael Colono died from stab wounds suffered during an impromptu fight on Western Avenue with an intoxicated Pring-Wilson minutes after leaving a local music club.

Pring-Wilson, who claimed self-defense, took exception to Colono mocking his drunken stagger while walking past the now-closed Pizza Ring restaurant in Riverside.

The trial was originally to start in November 2003, but a motion to move it meant a delay to September 2004. 

The 17-page Conway report, which was completed in February 2004, is notable because it’s a tangible example of how money and power can influence – or at least try to influence – the justice system. The report aimed to determine whether Pring-Wilson was more likely to get “a fair and balanced trial” in a county other than Middlesex.

Year after Cambridgeport clash on race, class, no signs Harvard took steps to address issues

A Harvard University official sparked an outcry last summer when she made condescending comments to a Cambridgeport neighbor, a young mother tending to her mixed-race toddler.

The city of Cambridge responded by spending nearly $14,000 on a series of five remedial workshops – but Harvard did not participate, and it remains unclear that the institution has done anything to prevent another collision over race and class.

On July 14, 2018, Theresa Lund, executive director of Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, took issue with the noise created by a child playing outside her apartment in Cambridgeport while her own children were napping. Lund was captured on video confronting the child’s young mother, Alyson Laliberte, and asking if Laliberte lived in one of the complex’s affordable units. At a time numerous white people had been captured on video nationwide being insensitive to issues of race and class, the incident created a social media firestorm and provided a rare glimpse into the university’s commitment to inclusiveness.

Lund was placed on leave, and the initiative’s director, Michael VanRooyen, pledged to address such bias with additional staff training. One year later, a Harvard spokeswoman said VanRooyen wasn’t available to provide details about what, if any, training was provided to staff members. VanRooyen is also chairman of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, according to his online profile.

Immediately after the incident, Lund wrote that she loved her community and was “committed to engaging in dialogue and actions about how to make it more welcoming and pleasant for all of us to live in together.” She’s now not listed on the Humanitarian Initiative’s website director. VanRooyen had tweeted in defense of Lund that the incident did “not represent who she is,” then deleted the tweet, Harvard Crimson staffer Caroline S. Engelmayer wrote.

Planning to dig

In October, Mayor Marc McGovern and city councillor Sumbul Siddiqui announced plans for “Cambridge Digs DEEP” forums with a plan to address “equity, power, privilege, diversity, inclusion and race.” In a news release, McGovern said the events represented a commitment to social justice: “We know that despite our reputation as a progressive city, Cambridge is not immune to issues of race and class.”

But McGovern also told The Harvard Crimson that the inclusion of university officials in such events was important so they could educate their employees who are in different financial situations than their neighbors. 

Even at the time, Engelmayer wrote in the Crimson, Harvard didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Boston Herpetologist Serves As Mother Nature’s Repo Man

 

BEVERLY, MASSACHUSETTS — You discover a poisonous cobra in a classroom. Who you gonna call?

If you’re one of hundreds of law enforcement agencies in the Northeast, the correct answer is probably Michael Ralbovsky. Since 1996, the herpetologist in Beverly has become a favorite resource for police departments confiscating dangerous creatures in New England and the Tri-State area for more than two decades.

It all started with the capture of 24-inch venomous snake discovered at a suburban-Boston elementary school. Word spread of Ralbovsky’s skills and he’s now a behind-the-scenes expert advising about 450 departments and agencies — as a free service. As a result, he’s quietly bridged the disparate worlds of animal-rights advocacy and law enforcement, becoming a type of repo man for Mother Nature. But instead of a tow truck, Ralbovsky’s work is done with a drive to save animals’ lives while assisting in about 300 seizures per year.

Demand for his work is a testament to how exotic pet ownership endures despite the efforts of animal rights groups and lawmakers concerned with the effect on the ecosystem coupled with the treatment and dangers of keeping non-domesticated animals.

The relocation work also underscores the difficulty officials face after confiscations. Finding a home for a puppy or kitten is one thing; locating one for a bearded dragon is a whole other matter.

Ralbovsky, who estimates recovering about 900 animals during 2017 alone, capitalizes on the national contacts he’s made during the last 30 years, said Gary Rogers, president of Nassau County, N.Y.’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“If I didn’t have Mike — he’s so respected by the law enforcement community — most of these animals would be euthanized,” Rogers said. “He plays an important part up and down the East Coast.”

DOMESTICATED WILDLIFE

Animal advocates have won major battles in recent years. For example, they put an end to the breeding of killer whales used in theme parks operated by Florida-based SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. and wild-animal circus acts.

The victories provided “momentum to national and global efforts to stop subjecting animals to lifelong captivity, coercive training techniques, and unceasing travel in box cars and cages,” the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States reported.

But a patchwork of state laws and makes it difficult to regulate and oversee ownership of wildlife. The Humane Society says there are now only four states with no, or an inadequate number of, laws restricting ownership of dangerous animals. Nineteen ban private ownership of exotic animals; 14 require owners of exotic wildlife to obtain a permit or license.

Americans with the financial means can acquire just about any type of wildlife they want and public officials are largely indifferent to the implications, Washington, D.C.-based Born Free USA CEO Prashant Khetan said.

“This is an industry that has kind of grown out of the market because people glamorize it,” he said. “This is an open market and it can exist on an open level. Most states fall into the bucket that it’s not a major problem for them.”

Inconsistent state laws haven’t helped the effort to defend animals, said DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.

“As far as I’m concerned the amount of wildlife trade has increased exponentially,” he said. “It’s gotten worse. People want something different.”

These are the dynamics at play and the conditions that make Ralbovsky so crucial to so many law enforcement officials.

Long Island, N.Y., has been the location for a disproportionate number of confiscations because of its proximity to Pennsylvania, which has less restrictive wildlife ownership laws. In mid-2016, Ralbovsky assisted in confiscating 130 turtles and 270 birds from a Bellmore, Long Island, home, the largest animal seizure in Nassau County history.

Complaints by Long Island residents are rising because they consider wildlife ownership to be a precursor to other crimes. Yet confiscated animals put officials in a bind because it can be expensive to relocate them, Rogers said.

“We just don’t have the resources ourselves,” he said. “Michael is the go-to guy; he’s my first stop and works out where the animals will go, to get them to a safe environment.”

COP CONNECTIONS

Joseph Chague, president of the Animal Control Officers Association of Massachusetts said the first thing his department in Pittsfield does when encountering wildlife is notify the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, or MassWildlife, which would then contact Ralbovsky if warranted.

Agency officials consider whom to contact on a case-by-case basis. But if it involves a dangerous reptile, Ralbovsky is their favorite recovery expert mostly because he finds a way to relocate them, MassWildlife’s Endangered Species Program Director Thomas French said.

Ralbovsky, 59, is no stereotypical pony-tailed, tree-hugging do-gooder. Clean cut and stocky, he typically wears a dark-green uniform evocative of a park ranger. He’s soft spoken with a demeanor that turns very serious when discussing the proper treatment of wildlife.

“We don’t ever, ever put an animal back in the public trade, ever never. It goes to a science center or a zoo,” Ralbovsky told a visitor to his wood-paneled office gurgling with four aquariums. “…People don’t like snakes, they don’t like lizards, they don’t like alligators. It’s not a cute and cuddly animal.”

In 2017, Ralbovsky and his wife, Joaney Gallagher, drove more than 30 hours to relocate 17 alligators to a zoological park in Beaumont, Texas. They also donate recovered animals to university science centers, sanctuaries and zoos. Some are kept at a facility that Ralbovsky and Gallagher oversee in Beverly, a scenic coastal city 27 miles north of Boston.

Ralbovsky’s reputation as a wildlife repo man was sparked by a 1996 incident in Stoneham. He captured a poisonous, two-foot Egyptian cobra in an elementary school three months after owner and neighbor Anthony Ferrari reported it missing. Ferrari and the Alabama man who allegedly sold the snake were charged with violating federal wildlife protection laws, the Boston Globe reported at the time.

Three decades of dealing with such animals has enabled Ralbovsky to spot trends like a surge in demand for ball pythons and bearded dragons. He can put such information to good use when training 300-400 first responders each year.

“I have to have this on my belt all the time,” Ralbovsky said touching his mobile phone. “I can’t get away from it because of law enforcement. We’re getting calls constantly on identification or whatever it might be.

Ralbovsky’s relocation work might seem unassailable, but Born Free USA prefers that recovered animals be released to a U.S. animal sanctuary regardless of the goal.

“We don’t agree with keeping wild animals in captivity — even for education,” Khetan said. “These animals are being used for entertainment and that’s not something we approve of.”

Back in Beverly, Ralbovsky and Gallagher operate a 3,200-square-foot animal sanctuary in an industrial park building that’s kept low profile for security reasons.

Rescuing wildlife doesn’t pay. The couple said they spend $40,000 a year just feeding creatures such as snakes, birds, turtles and tarantulas. They raise capital with a 25-year educational program called Rainforest Reptile Shows Inc. The charity provides seized animals with a second life in a traveling exhibit for children who benefit from wildlife that suddenly find themselves homeless.

“I don’t want the animals killed,” Ralbovsky said. “What will a PD [police department] do with a rattlesnake pulled out of a house in Long Island? … They don’t know enough about the animal to realize that it has a place in this world also. People don’t understand that.”

 

Reporter’s Commentary: Attempted Censorship? Report It

BOSTON — If there’s one thing the Pentagon Papers episode should have taught news execs it’s the importance of publishing in questionable cases.

Portions of the 7,000-page U.S. Department of Defense report detailing a hidden military expansion beyond Vietnam was published by a series of U.S. newspapers in 1971 after a series of threats and prior-restraint injunctions filed by federal officials. Intimidation tactics didn’t work and the judiciary system recognized the importance of that.

“… A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know,” U.S. District Judge Murray Gurfein wrote in a request to stop the Washington Post from publishing.

More than a dozen other newspapers joined in and ran portions of the report that demonstrated how the government had misled Americans about military actions in Indochina. It was a game changer. And the reports were a factor in the eventual end to the Vietnam War.

When the Nixon administration tried to discredit the two men who leaked the report via an illegal break-in, Federal District Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. declared a mistrial and wrote: “The totality of the circumstances of this case which I have only briefly sketched offend a sense of justice.”

 That was nearly 50 years ago and Americans still possess that sense of justice.

SERIAL CENSOR

In April 2018, this blog recounted the details of an egregious case of corporate censorship in Austin, Texas.

In mid-2015, an Austin Business Journal manager said that while this reporter was on vacation, Dell Technologies Inc. threatened parent company North Carolina-based American City Business Journals over its coverage.

ACBJ execs succumbed to the pressure, sanitized the news and then attempted to cover it up. Tweets were deleted, a story disappeared and media credentials denied by Dell. The reporter who wrote hundreds of unvarnished stories about the company was suddenly given an unscheduled performance review stating that his job was in jeopardy despite the lack of a single human resources issue during 10 years with the company.

It was blatant censorship by a bully billionaire in collusion with a national media company affiliated with Condé Nast, New Yorker magazine and Reddit. Dell Technologies successfully targeted a reporter who had written hundreds of articles about the company and understood it. More than 700 stories listed under this reporter’s byline referenced Dell. But might makes right.

IMBALANCED POWER

However distasteful Dell’s pressure on the ABJ was, it’s important to know that it was also illegal. In Texas, there’s a tortious interference law designed to discourage such abuse of power.

A 2012 Fourth Court of Appeals (in San Antonio) ruling on a case called Strickland suggests that the Dell executive who called ACBJ didn’t need to make an expressed demand that a reporter was terminated. Just the call itself can be considered an illegal act of obstructing a person’s right to work, according to the ruling. “A defendant’s interfering conduct need only be a proximate cause of the harm to plaintiff for there to be liability.”

Seeking and reporting the truth should never be a dangerous endeavor. Media execs can take simple measures to protect reporters and insulate them from the influence of money and the abuse of power it enables.

Inspired by the Pentagon Papers, news organizations can report on any attempts to sway coverage as way to discourage future occurrences.  Allowing execs to operate in secrecy to register complaints enables them to escape accountability and contributes to the censorship problem.

In the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Pentagon Papers, Associate Justice Hugo Black wrote about journalism’s role in reporting the truth.

“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.”

Amen.

 

Reporter’s Commentary: From Austin to Ireland, Telling the Truth is Dangerous

BOSTON — Timothy Sloan is gone as the leader of Wells Fargo & Co. but the damage is done.

Last month, the CEO abruptly announced his retirement after 31 years with the San Francisco-based bank that during the last three years has been dogged by ethics scandals related to past sales practices. Sloan, 58, has said he planned to remain CEO until he was 65.

The sudden resignation hammers home the fact that CEOs come and go but the role of courageous reporting remains regardless of trends or fashions. Media execs who don’t understand that are missing an important point.

Last year, Bloomberg News reporter Shahien Nasiripour was removed from his banking beat after Sloan complained to editors. Nasiripour, a 14-year reporter, was transferred to cover the Trump organization after he had a heated argument with a Wells Fargo public relations person, CNN reported in August 2018.

In March 2018, Nasiripour reported this story about Wells Fargo financing the National Rifle Association and the gun industry, both of which have come under scrutiny in the aftermath of several mass shootings nationally.

Wells Fargo is a major customer of Bloomberg’s sister company that sells electronic terminals providing financial data. So its influence on coverage was greater than most. It’s unlikely Sloan called Bloomberg just to register a complaint; any senior exec could have done that. CEOs call when they want heads to roll, and that’s what happened.

A short-sighted quick fix had longterm implications. Another reporter went missing and the integrity of journalism took another hit it can’t afford.

 

SERIAL CENSOR

In April 2018, we recounted in this blog post the details of an egregious case of corporate censorship in Austin, Texas.

In mid-2015, an Austin Business Journal manager said that while this reporter was on vacation, Dell Technologies Inc. threatened parent company North Carolina-based American City Business Journals over our coverage.

ACBJ execs succumbed to the pressure, sanitized the news and then attempted to cover it up. Tweets were deleted, a story disappeared and media credentials denied by Dell. The reporter who wrote hundreds of unvarnished stories about the company was suddenly given an unscheduled performance review stating that his job was in jeopardy despite the lack of a single human resources issue during 10 years with the company.

It was blatant censorship by a bully billionaire in collusion with a national media company affiliated with Condé Nast, New Yorker magazine and Reddit. Dell Technologies successfully targeted a reporter who had written hundreds of articles about the company and knew it well. More than 700 stories listed under this reporter’s byline referenced Dell. So effectively, the company tried to chill the journalist who knew it the best.

 

TRUTH KILLS

However distasteful Dell’s pressure on the ABJ was, it’s important to know that it was also illegal. In Texas, there’s a tortious interference law designed to discourage such abuse of power.

A 2012 Fourth Court of Appeals (in San Antonio) ruling on a case called Strickland suggests that the Dell executive who called ACBJ didn’t need to make an expressed demand that a reporter was fired. Just the call itself can be considered an illegal act of obstructing a person’s right to work, according to the ruling. “A defendant’s interfering conduct need only be a proximate cause of the harm to plaintiff for there to be liability.”

Seeking the truth and reporting it should never be a dangerous endeavor. Unfortunately, it often is.

The world was rightfully outraged earlier this month when Northern Ireland reporter Lyra McKee was shot dead covering a riot involving a group that calls itself the New IRA. She was just 29. The killing quickly drew condemnation from Ireland and beyond — not for political reasons, but for the right and civil reasons that bind all of us.

Irish President Michael Higgins signed a condolence book for McKee at Belfast City Hall, the Washington Examiner reported.

Higgins said, “The loss of a journalist at any time in any part of the world is an attack on truth itself.”

 

Reporter’s commentary: When there’s ‘broken trust,’ media execs can’t go unchecked

“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

 

CORPORATE CENSORSHIP

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.

 

 

 

Reporter’s commentary: Dell, taxes and phony philanthropy spotlighted at Davos event

The Jan. 23 “Making Digital Globalization Inclusive” session in Davos, Switzerland. By World Economic Forum/Christian Clavadetscher

BOSTON — Recent proposals to narrow the wealth gap by taxing the ultra wealthy is gaining momentum and the charitable giving of billionaires like Michael Dell is now under increased scrutiny.

In January, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recognized the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation for its 2017 contribution pledge to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, the hometown of Dell, the technology industry executive.

The foundation pledged to donate $36 million to Houston residents whose lives were devastated by the storm. While the foundation’s contribution was noteworthy, it’s also important to recognize that five months after the donation it was revealed that Michael Dell bought a $100 million Manhattan apartment for himself, the Wall Street Journal reported. That means that the native Houstonian and the 39th richest person in the world spent nearly three times more on himself than the entire city in which he was raised.

Is that the type of largess worthy of an award by the state of Texas? In comparison, Houston Texans linebacker J.J. Watts, a Wisconsin native, raised $41.6 million for victims of Hurricane Harvey, according to the NFL.

Now, Dell is opposing tax reform claiming that it’s better for billionaires to select their own charities rather than back federal assistance programs. Just days after Abbott honored Dell’s foundation, Michael Dell dismissed proposals for a 70 percent marginal tax rate while appearing on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“My wife and I set up a foundation about 20 years ago and we would’ve contributed quite a bit more than a 70 percent tax rate on my annual income,” Dell said during the panel, according to Bloomberg News. “I feel much more comfortable with our ability as a private foundation to allocate those funds than I do giving them to the government.”

Although he didn’t say it directly, Dell’s statement suggested that Americans should trust the company’s judgement — even though it has a history of poor judgement. Also, through donations to his foundation Dell pays a 70 percent tax rate on his annual income. But does he?

Dell’s foundation reported charitable donations of $101.5 million compared with revenue of $961.9 million during 2016, the latest year of publicly available reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service. That admittedly small sample size indicates that the foundation is spending just 10 percent of what it receives.

In January, Bloomberg reported that Michael Dell reaped a $12 billion windfall in December 2018 when he took his company public after operating it privately for five years. His net worth is now estimated to be about $27 billion. Such figures make his comment regarding contributing 70 percent of his annual income to charity seem puzzling.

 

IMAGE CONTROL

A February poll by Morning Consult and Politico found that 45 percent of Americans support a marginal tax rate; 32 percent oppose it. Of course, many billionaires object to tax reform for a variety of reasons, including greed and control. Distributing wealth through dubious philanthropies versus taxes enables the mega rich to control the narrative. Like the Hurricane Harvey donation, it allows them to portray themselves as heroes when they make a contribution that in relation to their total worth is actually marginal.

Such tactics are nothing new for Dell. The company has a history of skirting the truth to create an image that isn’t totally accurate.

For example, in 2010, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission fined Dell Inc., Michael Dell and senior executives for using rebates the company received from semiconductor maker Intel Corp. to inflate Dell’s quarterly revenue figures. Fraudulent accounting was employed to impress Wall Street analysts. Just like the Hurricane Harvey donation, Dell overstated conditions to enhance its image.

Unfortunately, such measures can lead to unintended consequences. In about 2012, BloombergNews published an extensive article with several former Dell employees making unflattering comments about Michael Dell’s micro-management style. The story, which included three reporter bylines, is now gone from the Web.

In a 2016 grotesque case of corporate censorship, the Austin Business Journal removed a story that questioned how a company donation may have played a role in Michael Dell receiving an award from a national environmental group. The result was more sanitized news. And then The New York Times reported in early 2018 that Michael Dell buys Twitter followers, an image-conscious tactic that celebrities use to make them appear more popular.

There’s more. Here in Boston, Michael Dell told a late 2017 gathering of the Boston College Chief Executives Club that his company, now called Dell Technologies, had spent $12.7 billion on research and development during the previous three years. The figure contradicted Dell’s filings with the SEC. A company spokeswoman later acknowledged that Dell was factoring in R&D spending of seven companies Dell Technologies acquired when it bought Massachusetts-based EMC Corp. in late 2016. Such incidents demonstrate how desperate Dell is to burnish its public image even when it’s at odds with reality.

 

Dell Technologies Inc. CEO Michael Dell in Davos. By World Economic Forum/ Christian Clavadetscher

DAVOS DEBACLE

The marginal tax question seemed to arise unexpectedly at the conference in Davos. Dell claimed that raising the tax rate for the ultra rich to 70 percent tax rate versus the current top limit of 37 percent would be bad for the country. This time, his effort to spin the truth like Intel rebates was readily apparent.

“No, I am not supportive of that, and I don’t think it would help the growth of the U.S. economy,” Dell asked the moderator. “Name a country where that’s worked, ever.”

Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and seated to Dell’s immediate left, was quick to respond. He said it actually worked quite well in the United States from the 1930s through the 1960s. That’s when the nation’s economy thrived under an average tax rate of 70 percent.

“I don’t have a strong opinion on that proposal, the devil is in the details” said Brynjolfsson who is also a professor at MIT’s prestigious Sloan School of Management. “But I think there’s a lot of economics that suggest that it’s not necessarily going to hurt growth.”

Dell had no immediate response for Brynjolfsson. But his dismissive comments about tax reform gained international media attention. Ironically, Dell took to Twitter in an effort to save face. In a humble brag he indicated that his lack of understanding was due to the noble founding of a computer company while a student at the University of Texas.

“Maybe if I hadn’t dropped out @UTAustin at 19 to start @Dell I would have learned more about history of taxes + probably many other things I missed along the way,” he tweeted. “I certainly have much to learn but I have no regrets about my life journey.”

It’s notable that Dell’s tweet generated 75 comments, according to his Twitter account. However, it’s unclear how many of those comments were favorable —  or written by followers that Dell had bought.

Reporter’s commentary: Attention media execs, credibility counts

 

BOSTON — This month’s BuzzFeed Inc. controversy proves once again that journalism can be its own worst enemy.

A report by the NewYork-based news outlet drew an unprecedented rebuke by Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is leading the investigation into Russia’s influence on the 2016 presidential election. Chronic criers of so-called “fake news” could never have found a better ally.

BuzzFeed, which launched in 2006, established a news division in 2011. The company’s BuzzFeed News was officially formed in 2016 to differentiate the company’s reporting division from its entertainment group. But did it do so effectively? Unfortunately, the quality of BuzzFeed’s news reports— including the early 2017 discredited release of the Steele dossier—suggests no.

The result is an untenable dynamic because BuzzFeed’s dubious reporting is undermining more credible reports and enabling unscrupulous officials to call into question the status of all news media. That’s a dangerous situation in a democracy that depends on a dependable and robust press to ask the tough questions and counterbalance abuse of power. Without credible reporters, the balance tips and corruption gets a free pass. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy.”

 

 

DELL AND A SANITIZED WEB

The stakes are higher now than ever. Yet, one wouldn’t know that based on the reaction of the nation’s journalism schools and journalism organizations where indifference is the default mode.

In April, this piece recounted the details of a flagrant case of corporate censorship in Austin, Texas. In mid-2015, an Austin Business Journal manager said that while I was on vacation, Dell Technologies Inc. threatened the ABJ’s parent company, North Carolina-based American City Business Journals, over its coverage. ACBJ execs buckled under the pressure. Tweets were deleted, a story disappeared, media credentials were denied by Dell. The reporter who at the direction of editors broke several stories about the company was suddenly given an unscheduled performance review stating that his job was in jeopardy despite and unblemished career and the lack of a single human resources issue during 10 years with the company.

Dell Technologies, in collusion with a national media company, successfully targeted a reporter who knew Dell well and had written hundreds of articles about it. (More than 700 stories listed under this reporter’s byline referenced Dell). Dell public relations people routinely made it clear they didn’t appreciate enterprise stories. Yet the ACBJ awarded the reporter its highest honor in 2012 citing his close coverage of Dell.

ACBJ President and CEO Whit Shaw later told Talking Biz News the reporter’s dismissal was “a personnel issue” and declined to provide an explanation for the missing Dell story. The company also tried to cover its tracks by tying the reporter’s separation payout to a non-disclosure agreement — which the reporter rejected on principle.

 

SIGNIFICANCE OF CENSORSHIP

Censorship at the ACBJ has national implications.

American City Business Journals operates dozens of publications nationally 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.

In late 2015, Whit Shaw said in this video the relationship ACBJ has with Advance and sister companies such a Condé Nast Inc. and the Discovery Channel makes the ACBJ part of a “global media powerhouse.”

But there’s more.

National Public Radio cites ACBJ reports on its news programs and the unsuspecting public justifiably believes it’s receiving fully reported, objective coverage, not company-approved, sanitized news.

Also, Advance Publications is a major supporter of one of the nation’s premiere journalism programs at Syracuse University. Should a university journalism program associate with a company that undermines truthful reporting?

It’s worth noting that Whit Shaw stepped into his position when his father, former Wall Street Journal reporter Ray Shaw, died from a wasp sting in 2009. In the 2015 video, Whit Shaw quoted his father about the ACBJ’s loyalty to its employees. The comment drips with irony when considering how the ACBJ bowed to Dell’s strong-arm tactics and flagrant censorship.

“Years ago when my dad said the most important asset in ACBJ arrives every morning on the elevator and takes the elevator down at night,” Shaw said. “That truly is, that individual truly is the most important asset.”

 

Commentary: Censorship, Ethics and The Power of Journalism

BOSTON — Whit Shaw knows something about power.

The president and CEO of North Carolina-based American City Business Journals rides herd over dozens of publications nationally 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.

In late 2015, Shaw said in this video the relationship ACBJ has with Advance and sister companies such a Condé Nast Inc. and the Discovery Channel makes the ACBJ part of a “global media powerhouse.”

No one could argue with that.

But the comment raises a very important question: What specifically makes such media companies so powerful? The answer is simple yet at the same time very complicated.

The power of journalism is largely based on credibility. The respect accorded credible outlets emanates from editorial independence, unbiased coverage and truthful reporting. A media outlet becomes worthless when the public loses confidence in the accuracy of stories. It’s a sacred, public trust that can’t be violated. Our American democracy relies on it.

Adolph S. Ochs understood the inherent responsibility and based his approach on the premise of editorial independence.

“It will be my earnest aim,” he wrote in 1896, “… to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

 

THE DELL DEBACLE

In April, we recounted the details of a flagrant case of corporate censorship in Austin, Texas. In mid-2015, an Austin Business Journal manager said that while I was on vacation, Dell Technologies Inc. threatened the ABJ’s parent company, ACBJ, over our coverage. ACBJ execs buckled under the pressure. Tweets were deleted, a story disappeared, media credentials were denied by Dell and the reporter who wrote hundreds of unvarnished stories about the company was suddenly given an unscheduled performance review stating that his job was in jeopardy despite the lack of a single human resources issue during 10 years with the company.

Dell Technologies, in collusion with a national media company, successfully targeted a reporter who had written hundreds of articles about the company and knew it well. (More than 700 stories listed under this reporter’s byline referenced Dell). Dell public relations people routinely made it clear they didn’t appreciate enterprise stories. Yet the ACBJ awarded the reporter its highest honor in 2012 citing his close coverage of Dell.

Shaw later told Talking Biz News the reporter’s dismissal was “a personnel issue” and declined to discuss the matter.

Censorship at the ACBJ has national implications. National Public Radio cites ACBJ reports on its news programs and the unsuspecting public justifiably believes it’s receiving fully reported, objective coverage, not company-approved, sanitized news.

Also, Advance Publications is a major supporter of one of the nation’s premiere journalism programs at Syracuse University. Should a journalism program associate with a company that undermines truthful reporting?

 

DEFENDING TRUTH SEEKERS

The litmus test for media outlets — and journalism in general — is how they react to pressure from the powerful. Do they stand up for the truth, or do they stand down? There’s a 2015 scene in John Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood, that provides a real-world example for how media executives should react to outside pressure.

Theranos Inc., a fraudulent California company, wanted to stop the Wall Street Journal from revealing the truth behind Theranos’ claim that it could run a battery of tests with just a drop of blood. An army of expensive lawyers tried to knock Carreyrou off the story. Journal owner Rupert Murdoch, who stood to lose millions of investment dollars if Theranos was discredited, refused to reign in Carreyrou and Theranos’ executives were exposed as maniacal charlatans. The truth won; America won.

In the Dell debacle, the truth was trampled and America lost.

At the ACBJ, Shaw stepped into his position when his father, former Wall Street Journal reporter Ray Shaw, died in 2009 after being stung by a wasp. In the 2015 video, Whit Shaw quoted his father about the ACBJ’s loyalty to its employees.

“Years ago when my dad said the most important asset in ACBJ arrives every morning on the elevator and takes the elevator down at night,” he said. “That truly is, that individual truly is the most important asset.”

Important maybe, but apparently not valuable enough to defend against a corporate bully.