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.

 

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: 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.

Commentary: Censorship, Dell Technologies and the role of journalism watchdogs

BOSTON — Anyone who has used an office kitchen is familiar with the constant disarray despite notes requesting workers to clean up after themselves. Dirty cups are placed in the sink instead of the dishwasher; trash is left on countertops and no one is held responsible — because everyone is responsible. The scenario provides an unlikely parallel to journalism.

There’s a raft of groups and organizations designed to monitor the integrity of the media and members of the media to uphold well-established standards. But it could be argued that no one is taking the lead in protecting journalism’s integrity despite unprecedented attacks from powerful business people and high-ranking officials.

Like a kitchen, any activity that relies on everyone pitching in for the greater good enables a community to take part in monitoring. But it also provides participants an opportunity to escape accountability. The dynamic at play is the result of a sociopsychological phenomenon called “diffusion of responsibility.” In other words, when everyone is in charge of a task, no one has to take charge. That’s what is happening in journalism.

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 back down? Buckling to censors of the truth undermines the credibility of the press and has dangerous implications. Yet standing down has become tolerated and even accepted by groups that promote themselves as noble defenders of democracy. In August, CNN reported an incident that is symptomatic of what is becoming all too common. Bloomberg News reporter Shahien Nasiripour was removed from his banking beat earlier this year after Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan complained to editors.

In April, this blog 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 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. One PR guy emailed that such pieces would hinder the ABJ’s to access Dell execs in the future.

While ACBJ and Bloomberg execs have not been held accountable for their shortsighted personnel moves under threat, other unprincipled national media executives have been exposed this year. NBC News execs, Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves and 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager have all been in the news for abusing their power. Weinstein has faces rape and other criminal charges in New York; Moonves and Fager both resigned their positions.

It’s noteworthy that journalism watchdog groups haven’t been involved in the revelations and subsequent fallout. Instead, it’s been New Yorker magazine and its reporter, Ronan Farrow, who was dismissed from NBC last year when he pressed to continue investigating Weinstein’s history of harassing women. Farrow’s assertion that NBC execs were cowered by Weinstein threats and covered up his abuse has been corroborated by former NBC producer Rich McHugh. NBC officials now say the results of Farrow’s reporting weren’t ready for airing.

There’s a clear difference between poor newsroom judgment and outright corruption. Such behavior is more than unprincipled; it’s illegal. In Texas, a business exec that uses his power get a worker fired can be held liable for tortious interference of employment. Regardless, it’s important that someone — whether it’s a journalism watchdog group or another news outlet — expose wrongdoing to discourage re-occurrences.

“This sort of conduct is tied to over-all climate and oftentimes to how women are seen or valued within an entire organization,” Fatima Goss Graves, the president and C.E.O. of the National Women’s Law Center, told Farrow when discussing the abuse of power. “And there’s no question that the head of the organization sets the tone for the entire organization.”

After all, someone needs to keep the kitchen clean.

Commentary: Telling the truth versus buying the truth via corporate censorship

BOSTON — You can’t engineer the truth. But you can buy it.

Bloomberg News reporter Shahien Nasiripour was removed from his banking beat earlier this year after Wells Fargo CEO Timothy 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 Aug. 27.

Of course, it would be easy for anyone to jump to conclusions and demonize Bloomberg editors for enabling corporate censorship. But that would be too easy. It’d also be unfair because there could be extenuating circumstances and other factors that haven’t been revealed to the public.

However, it’s crucial to note that in March Nasiripour reported this story about Wells Fargo financing the National Rifle Association and the gun industry, which has come under scrutiny after a several mass shootings. It wasn’t a flattering look for Wells Fargo, a company that since 2016 has taken its lumps for a string of widely reported scandals starting with the discovery that workers created fake accounts for customers to meet sales goals.

It’s not unusual for a beat reporter to have a contentious relationship with one of its subjects. Yet it’s totally out of the ordinary for a CEO to intervene in such battles. Wells Fargo is a major customer of Bloomberg’s sister company that sells terminals providing financial data. It’s unlikely Sloan called Bloomberg just to register a complaint; any senior executive could have done that. CEOs call when they want heads to roll. Or in this case, chill enterprise reporting.

Details of Wells Fargo’s influence came just days after more than 300 U.S. news organizations ran editorials supporting reporting freedom. “The press is necessary to a free society because it does not implicitly trust leaders — from the local planning board to the White House,” the Boston Globe wrote Aug. 15.

Those leaders include CEOs who naturally don’t like watchdog reporters. They want lapdogs, pawns. Sloan is probably no exception and he’s justifiably sensitive about bad press. But blaming a reporter for an unflattering story is like blaming a mirror for a bad haircut. It’s nonsensical.

A Bloomberg spokesperson explained the changing of its Wells Fargo reporter by saying: “We make decisions about how we cover those companies based purely on what is best for our readers.” If that’s true, why did Bloomberg determine Nasiripour’s suitability after Sloan’s complaint and not before?

In April, I recounted in this blog post 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 our parent company, North Carolina-based American City Business Journals, over our coverage. ACBJ execs buckled under the pressure. Tweets were deleted, a story disappeared, media credentials 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. It was blatant censorship by a bully billionaire in collusion with a national media company.

Dell Technologies had 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. One PR guy emailed that such stories would make it more difficult for the ABJ to access Dell execs in the future.

“There are some things worth risking everything for,” President Obama recently said when eulogizing Arizona Sen. John McCain.

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 the ABJ’s parent company didn’t have to make an expressed demand that a reporter was fired. Just the call itself can be considered an act of interference, 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.”

There’s a clear difference between poor newsroom judgment and outright corruption. The damage media execs do to journalism at large with shortsighted decisions can be incalculable.

During McCain’s eulogy, Obama also said something about the former prisoner of war that news execs — all journalists — should heed when dealing with people of power and censorship issues: “In captivity, John learned, in ways that few of us ever will … how each moment, each day, each choice is a test.”

 

Commentary: Failing the ‘Fake News’ Test at a Crucial Moment in History

BOSTON — There’s a story missing from the Internet.

It’s not a big story, but it’s an important one. It’s just 250 words long and its content is the result of routine reporting; nothing especially remarkable.

It’s not a blockbuster. The article was written for the Austin Business Journal, a niche publication, about a relatively minor issue. Yet it’s notable because its removal from the Web represents a betrayal of public trust at time when trust is at a premium and journalism is already in a tenuous position.

The story’s disappearance should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who values the truth because its removal was done by a news company with a national reach. It also shows that some American companies won’t hesitate to put its self-interests ahead of the public’s right to know. Censorship remains an option.

The ABJ story was a follow up to a routine piece announcing that environmental group Keep America Beautiful would present CEO Michael Dell with an award in New York City. The follow-up piece highlighted the role that a $75,000 “sponsorship” by Dell may have played in the award. Was it a legitimate award, or did Dell effectively buy it? The online article was deleted more than a week after it ran when Dell Inc., the technology giant based in Round Rock, Texas, threatened the ABJ’s North Carolina-based parent company, American City Business Journals. (Here’s an early version of the deleted piece.)

In early 2016, Michael Dell revealed his opinion of the news business when urging workers to ignore reports that a proposed business deal had hit a snag: “The media business is under a lot of stress and their business model is sort of cratering,” he said. “And what they do to survive in those tough times is they create something called click bait. They create an inflammatory headline. So and so was impregnated by aliens, or whatever, click on here to read about this story, see some ads, try to get some money.”

More than 700 stories about Dell, or referring to the company, appear under this reporter’s byline. Many of them were skeptical of information released by the company and revealed issues such as employee lawsuits Dell officials probably preferred were not reported. They commented for the (deleted) award story and never disputed its accuracy or fairness after it was posted. As such, Dell’s threat more than a week after the story ran raises questions about the company’s motivations.

In April, I recounted in another blog post the details of Dell’s censorship and the series of retaliatory actions it took with the ACBJ as an apparent accomplice. To recap, an ABJ manager said that while I was on vacation in mid-2015 a Dell official threatened our parent company over our coverage. Two weeks later, I was suddenly given an unscheduled performance review that stated my job was in jeopardy despite the lack of a single human resources issue during 10 years with the company. I was then dismissed after breaking another enterprise story about Dell planning to relocate its annual users conference from Austin to Las Vegas.

In April, the ACBJ’s CEO declined to comment on the matter to Talking Biz News, unimaginatively referring to it as a “personnel issue.” He was right. But the problem doesn’t concern the ‘personnel’ a reader would be led to believe; it’s the managers not standing up to corporate bullies.

It’s important to note that the Dell debacle has national implications because the ACBJ operates news outlets in 43 metropolitan areas. Many of the outlets provide content to NPR stations assuming the reporting is unbiased. However, it’s unlikely that this was an isolated incident. How many other companies dictate news coverage in ACBJ newsrooms?

ACBJ is owned by Advance Publications Inc., a New York-based company controlled by the Newhouse family, major donors to Syracuse University’s journalism program. That ownership structure insulates the parent company from accountability, enabling it to promote its support of quality reporting while its own lower-level execs undermine reporting.

Advertisers and the politically connected have influenced news coverage since time immemorial. But such pressures are arguably at their greatest level now as news business profits shrink. As a result, it’s never been more important to guard against anything that can result in biased coverage and violate time-tested principles.

Reporters are like the truth; you have to face them sometime, no matter how much power you have.

Commentary: Censorship And Tech Companies Keep Austin Weird

BOSTON — In November 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected amid charges of fake news, I was walked out of my newsroom after reporting real news.

It was the culmination of a 16-month case of thinly disguised censorship sparked by Texas-based Dell Technologies Inc. threatening the Austin Business Journal over its coverage. Dell had an unlikely accomplice, a media organization affiliated with the company that owns that paragon of journalism, New Yorker magazine, and donates millions to Syracuse University’s lauded journalism program.

I had been a reporter for North Carolina-based American City Business Journals for 11 years, covering technology for three years at its Boston-based Mass High Tech and then eight years at the Austin Business Journal. Managers dismissed me after breaking a story about Dell planning to move its annual users conference (called Dell World) from Austin to Las Vegas. We also reported that the relocation would cost Austin businesses about $8 million in annual revenue.

Two weeks after the article, ABJ managers called for an unscheduled performance review. Despite an unblemished tenure, they said my job was in jeopardy — something that had happened only once before, also two weeks after a manager said a senior Dell executive threatened our parent company after we broke a previous Dell story in mid-2015.

The 2015 threat came when we reported in a later version of this brief that Dell donated $75,000 to an environmental group after it provided CEO Michael Dell with a “Vision for America” award. The 230-word article, a follow-up to this brief based on a Dell news release, underscored the role money played in selecting its recipient, and Dell’s public relations department didn’t dispute the accuracy or fairness of the story after it was posted. However, more than a week later, an ABJ manager called me while I was on vacation and said I needed to delete a tweet about the award story because the Dell exec claimed the tweet was libelous.

When I returned to work the next week, I discovered the story was surreptitiously deleted. One manager later said ACBJ lawyers requested the story be removed because it had been “tainted” by the tweets. The libel allegation was an apparent ploy to censor enterprise reporting. Readers would never get the full story, just what Dell issued in a news release. There was no correction, clarification or letter to the editor posted because Dell didn’t care about an accurate report; it just didn’t want the report. Period.

Side note: More than 700 stories focused on Dell or referring to Dell are under my byline. Companies often prefer lapdog reporters to watchdog reporters because it gives them more control over their image. Yet most realize there’s an important American principle at stake that overshadows a need for control. Such businesses recognize that a free press and civil discourse dwarf the importance of any company’s image. Also, unbiased reporting should keep the powerful in check and counterbalance the influence their money can buy. But it’s a challenge creating any semblance of balance in Austin. There’s the Dell Children’s Medical Center, Dell Seton Medical Center, Dell (baseball) Diamond, the Dell Technologies Match Play, Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation Hall, and so on. Get the picture?

Though Dell is publicly generous it’s privately petty. Dealings with executives were marked by hypersensitivity and vindictiveness. A Bloomberg BusinessWeek story highlighting Michael Dell’s quirky management style in about 2010 seems to have disappeared from the Web, and the Bloomberg reporters who wrote it didn’t explain its whereabouts. In mid-2013, Michael Dell direct messaged this reporter via Twitter at night taking issue with tweets. The next year, Chief Marketing Officer Karen Quintos wrote a critical letter to the editor after the ABJ (accurately) reported that an upcoming Dell World lacked a star keynote speaker. When I courteously congratulated another senior exec about landing a job with different company and wished him well, he replied with a critique of my reporting style. It was surreal.

 

In the first abruptly called performance review after the threatening phone call, managers who had written in an immediately preceding review that I was “well known in the community and respected,” “one of the most professional reporters we know” and “strictly fair” to sources now declared my job in jeopardy because I displayed “animus” toward sources. They declined to identify a single offended source. The effect of Dell’s threat was dishearteningly apparent and suggested that ACBJ execs had caved and charged my managers with creating a cover story.

Three months later, Dell denied me press credentials to Dell World. Its spokesman indicated that anyone else from the ABJ was invited to cover the event—except me. The obvious retaliation went unchallenged by ABJ managers and I covered the event with a general admission pass. In September 2016, a Dell spokeswoman denied my request for Dell World credentials and indicated that another ABJ staffer was assigned to cover event. Effectively, Dell dictated who would report on the conference. We broke the relocation story a couple days later and I waited for the second farcical performance review and subsequent termination.

ACBJ execs assigned a reporter to uncover the truth and then enabled a company to attack him for what he found. In 2010, the ABJ publisher wrote in a nomination for a company-wide award: Before Christopher came to the ABJ, our reputation for covering technology was far from where it is today. The best example of how Christopher has advanced our coverage can be found in Dell Inc. For years the ABJ has found it difficult to cover Dell. It’s a tight-lipped company that tends to give scoops to papers such as the WSJ. Dell still supplies scoops to the national players, but more often than not Christopher beats Dell to the punch due to his outstanding reporting capabilities and his ability to work around ‘official sources.’ … On top of all that, he is an absolute workhorse. He is in the office EVERY weekend and is typically the first to show up and the last to leave. Fortunately or unfortunately, reporting consumes Christopher’s life … and ABJ readers are the beneficiaries.

New York-based Advance Publications Inc., also the owner of Conde´ Nast Publications, owns ACBJ. Advance Publications is controlled by  the family of the late S.I. Newhouse, a longtime donor to Syracuse University—home of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Notably, NPR stations such as WBUR in Boston cite ACBJ reports in their broadcasts.

In January 2016, a couple months after I was dismissed, the White House named Michael Dell to the 28-person American Manufacturing Council expected to support Trump’s plan to increase the number of U.S. jobs. Instead, it served as a litmus test for the values of corporate executives after Trump refused to denounce white supremacists that rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, and killed a protester. The council was later disbanded when nine members resigned over Trump’s response. Michael Dell didn’t.

Enterprising reporters are often the only thing standing between readers and corporate propaganda. This reporter is still standing — and standing up for the truth.