A Needless Ethical Slip

The WSJ’s current ethical snafu of hiring the head of a global PR giant to write a column, even on such a chicken-salad subject as microtrends, is part of a drip-drip deterioration of standards at the erstwhile global financial news leader, which we’ll get to in another post.

But, for the moment, what was the point of my old paper’s hiring Mark Penn to write the column himself (before I get too far, a hardy pat on the back to Gawker for breaking this one. It’s more than they do for others, but we’re bigger than that)? You couldn’t just hire a reporter, or if you’re trying to save money, a freelancer simply to call the man to get his brilliant ideas on “glamping”?

That way, you can quote him, name his firm, and he can send the lame story to prospective clients until the cows come home. The vital glamping information is conveyed to readers, and all ethical considerations are eliminated, except for the usual ones involved in the playing of footsie with PR firms you will need something from before too long.

But hey—it beats actually hiring one to write your columns.

Where’s the judgment?

And if the idea is that Penn is some kind of celebrity columnist—after helping to run Hillary Clinton’s campaign into a ditch and stepping on his own foot when his firm, Burson-Marsteller, took on the government of Colombia as a client to promote a trade deal Clinton opposed, what does it take to be disqualified as a celebrity?

A couple of questions: How many times a day does Burson-Marsteller call the WSJ looking for free publicity for its clients, and what happens on the day a Journal reporter gets a good tip on Burson-Marsteller itself?

It’s worth worrying about the encroachment of News Corp. culture at the Journal.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.