Down With The Conflict-of-Interest Police

Anonymice wrong again: It's fine for former WSJ-current NYT editor to do a book on his old company

The New York Post’s well-sourced Keith J. Kelly published a good item last week saying that a book idea floated about News Corp.’s successful takeover of Dow Jones, which would have been authored by the The New York Times’s Larry Ingrassia and Joe Nocera, is in trouble or dead because of lack of publisher interest.

That’s fine, I suppose, though it says more about the publishing business than the idea.

Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff recently won a heavy advance from Bertelsmann’s Doubleday for a book on a similar topic, having secured, reportedly, the cooperation of News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch. And that’s good.

But, you want to read an Ingrassia/Nocera book on the collapse of Dow Jones, a once-great American institution. Ingrassia, who heads the Times business section, worked at DJ’s flagship The Wall Street Journal since 1978, headed the paper’s Money & Investing section and was an assistant managing editor when he left to take over uptown in 2004. I am confident that he knows the plumbing of American’s leading financial organ as well as anyone. Nocera, a bigfoot business columnist, wrote one of the best stories ever (1) on Dow Jones for Fortune back in 1998, a time when the company’s independence could have been saved by changes outlined in the text of the story. Both would be superbly sourced.

If book publishers aren’t sufficiently interested, that’s their business. They can go back to those diet books and other trash they print.

But Kelly also reports that anonymous staffers at the Times don’t like the idea because Ingrassia is said to have conflicts of interest. He oversaw the paper’s (excellent) deal coverage and didn’t tell the staff he was thinking about a book, the implication being, I suppose, that he somehow may have steered the coverage to help his deal, or something like that. He also supervises Nocera, which, apparently, is bad. Moreover, his brother, Paul Ingrassia, a top DJ executive recently lost out on the competition for the Journal’s top newsroom job, managing editor, and plans to leave the company.

I’m not sure I see the problem, but maybe an anonymouse can help us:

“It is fraught with conflicts of interest,” said one insider. “Larry was supervising coverage of the deal and he never told the newsroom he was working on a book. Presumably, he knew who all their confidential sources were.”

It also posed another problem in the eyes of the insider, because Ingrassia was contemplating a joint business deal for the book with someone who reports directly to him in his day job.

In another potential conflict, Ingrassia’s brother Paul is an executive at Dow Jones who at one time was considered a candidate to succeed Paul Steiger in the top editorial job at The Wall Street Journal.

Nyah, nyah.

So what’s the solution: No book?

First, anyone using the word “fraught” while anonymously sniping at his or her boss, The Audit suspects, would not be much fun at The Audit Semi-Annual Cocktail Party at Faculty House. We would find this person, I fear, both weasly and pompous. So, no gin for you.

Second, the conflict-of-interest gotcha game is fine, I suppose—until it is used as a preemptive strike against journalism itself. Then it becomes pirhanna-tank material, the New York media’s charming way of consuming itself while pretending to police itself.

How do readers gain, exactly, if they are spared such a book, even if it were true than an author was conflicted? The problem is obviously solved through disclosure. And if you think Ingrassia was manipulating coverage in order to enhance a book deal, I feel as sorry for you as I feel for News Corp. and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, both of which alleged(2),separately and by clear implication, as though inspired by the same rancid, evil muse(3), that Ingrassia and his staff were manipulating the coverage to serve the corporate interests of New York Times Co. The assertion is ridiculous on its face.

I would suggest that this kind of conflict-of-interest tatteling is not what media elites do to maintain standards, but what they do instead.

1. Attention, Dow Jones: Ms. Goth Wants Results Now! Her rebellion has spurred the company into action. Now it’s showtime.
with reporter associate Maria Atanasov
March 2, 1998

2. “News Corp. has consistently cooperated with The New York Times in its coverage of the company. However, the agenda for this unprecedented series is so blatantly designed to further the Times’s commercial self interests — by undermining a direct competitor poised to become an even more formidable competitor — that it would be reckless of us to participate in their malicious assault. Ironically, The Times, by using its news pages to advance its own corporate business agenda, is doing the precise thing they accuse us of doing without any evidence.”

News Corp. statement in response to a June 25 NYT story on, among other things, News Corp.’s financial ties to U.S. Congressmen while the company had business before Congress.

3. “Both the New York Times and the Financial Times have been especially aggressive in assailing the potential News Corp. purchase of the Journal. These also happen to be the two publications that Mr. Murdoch has explicitly said he might invest more to compete against. Readers can judge if the tears these papers and their writers claim to shed for the Journal’s future are real, or of the crocodile variety.”

A New Owner
WSJ editorial, Aug. 1.

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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.