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.


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.


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.”



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.



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


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.”




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.



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.”