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.”



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?



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.