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.