CNBC’s Dennis Kneale Goes Native

Cultivating powerful sources at the expense of telling the story

We may have ourselves a new poster boy of Access Journalism.

Say hello to CNBC’s Dennis Kneale, protector of the powerful, proponent of journalistic capture. He unloads this stunner after a feud with Felix Salmon of Reuters over The Daily Beast’s Sumner Redstone scoop.

Here’s the backstory: Peter Lauria of The Daily Beast wrote a story last month that the billionaire media kingpin Redstone didn’t like at all. Redstone called Lauria and left a super-creepy voicemail saying Lauria would be, er, “well-rewarded” if he gave up his anonymous source:

“We’re not going to kill him. We just want to talk to him. We’re not going to fire him. We just want to talk to him…

“You will be thoroughly protected. We’re not going to hurt this guy. We just want to sit him down and find out why he did what he did. You will not in any way be revealed. You will be well-rewarded and well-protected.”

So Lauria did what a reporter ought to do. He wrote a story about the call and put the recording on the Web.

But Kneale hammers Lauria for publishing the news that a powerful CEO is offering rewards (monetary or otherwise) to news reporters for their anonymous sources. Really! Kneale says:

Online journalism may have hit a new low in lack of civility. A chairman calls a journo’s private phone line, leaves a private voice mail and presumes it’s all confidential. And all because he didn’t explicitly say, “This is off the record,” suddenly it’s “gotcha!” and we can turn private communication into public presentation? Without permission—hell, without even asking?

One of the first things I learned in journalism was that information wasn’t off the record unless the reporter explicitly agrees to go off the record. We assume that information, especially from a public figure is on the record, except in extreme circumstances. Redstone has been around a long time—a really long time (he’s 87). He’s not a man on the street who’s not savvy about the press and who therefore may deserve some protection.

Rarely are the tradeoffs of Access Journalism made so explicit as Kneale makes them here:

This latest flap won’t contribute to better in-depth coverage of Viacom and CBS. It isn’t likely to affect the underlying value of the companies. It’s a great one-off, a one-hit wonder, but was it worth it, guys? Maybe a little buzz is the only thing that counts these days.


Peter Lauria now ranks as one of the bravest (and one of the rudest) media reporters anywhere. He may never again be able to have lunch at Michael’s, the midtown Manhattan media mecca. And no one will leave him a long voice mail.

In Kneale’s upside-down journalistic world, this last paragraph is intended as a slur. Instead, Lauria ought to print it out and tack it on his cube wall. It’s unintentional high praise (however much of a provocateur Kneale is trying to be). And anyway, having been to Michael’s a few times, lemme tell you that unless you’re an anthropologist on the hunt for the Self-Involved Asshat Capital of the World, you’re not missing much.

There’s another critical angle here: Redstone isn’t just some ancient railroad tycoon in a smoke-filled room (although listen to the recording for kicks: Redstone sounds straight out of an old gangster movie, see. Now scram, youze!), he’s chairman of CBS Corporation. CBS has one of the biggest, most influential international news operations in the world in CBS News, plus 28 local TV stations with news divisions in the biggest cities, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

This would be a good story worth reporting even if Redstone were a non-media guy. But the chairman of a news organization acting like this with a journalist? It’s a no-brainer.

Kneale’s reaction is reminiscent of the recent McChrystal affair, which showed journalists, including David Brooks of The New York Times and (ahem) CBS’s Lara Logan blasting Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings for reporting a four-star general’s reckless (and on-the-record) comments.

Matt Taibbi got to the nut of that whole thing:

Hey, assholes: you do not work for the people you’re covering!

What Kneale is saying (“Did the Beast overstep some invisible line here?”) is that it’s best not to report a story Redstone doesn’t want to come out because we might not get the other stories that Redstone et al want to come out. That’s a bad deal.

Kneale isn’t just some CNBC clown. He spent 16 years at The Wall Street Journal, where he won a Pulitzer, and he was later managing editor of Forbes.

That makes his views here all the more cringeworthy.

Look, I’m not naive. I know there are tradeoffs that come with covering a beat. But this is something else entirely. It’s protecting the powerful from themselves at the expense of reporting the truth.

Lauria’s Sumner Redstone story is more illuminating about how business is done than a hundred access-oriented Viacom pieces.

UPDATE: Salmon himself has a must-read take on Kneale here:

Once you start working your way up the masthead, and hanging out with moguls at places like Davos and Aspen, this tends to happen to you: you get more comfortable, and less hungry; you think that access is more important than actual stories. Clearly Kneale has reached that place, and in a way I’m impressed that he’s happy to admit it. Most of the swanning-around class of journalists are delusional enough that they’d never do that.

And I missed this comment of Kneale’s in which he says he protected Redstone from himself while at Forbes:

“sumner pops off—he did it to us at forbes, made a bold predictn in violation of sec disclousre rules… and we knew he was off-the-reservation when he did it, so we gave him a pass, didn’t use it.

Just… wow.

Further Reading:

If you can follow this Twitter back and forth between Kneale and Salmon—who’s on the side of the angels here—I suggest you do. You have to work pretty hard to be as wrong as Kneale is here.

Access Uber Alles. In return for access you have to give something up. But how much, and what do you get in return? That’s the question every time.

The Price of Admission: Andrew Ross Sorkin’s debut and the limits of access journalism.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.