The Dead Go On the Record in The Wall Street Journal

The paper held Apple director’s newsmaking comments until after his death

A Wall Street Journal story yesterday on the death of Apple director Jerome York quoted eye-opening remarks York made to the paper more than three months ago.

What’s odd is the Journal didn’t explain to readers why it held the interview so long.

The publication of newsworthy comments after the death of their source raises an interesting and potentially serious journalistic question: Did the paper break an off-the-record deal with York upon his death?

In the story, by Yukari Iwatani Kane and Joann S. Lublin, the Journal quotes Apple board member Jerome York, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage several days ago, saying that he was “disgusted” and considered resigning over the way CEO Steve Jobs handled disclosing a life-threatening illness. Here’s the relevant passage:

But he had strong feelings about the way Mr. Jobs handled disclosures about his leave of absence for health reasons in January 2009. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last year, Mr. York said he almost resigned when told of the seriousness of Mr. Jobs’s illness. Mr. York felt Mr. Jobs should have publicly disclosed his health problem three weeks earlier in a news release that announced his decision not to appear at the Macworld trade conference.

Mr. York said the concealment “disgusted” him, adding that the only reason he didn’t quit at the time was because he wanted to avoid the uproar that would have occurred once he disclosed his reason. “Frankly, I wish I had resigned then,” he said.

Make no mistake about it, this would have been big news had the Journal reported it at the time, which leads us to ask why it didn’t. After all, the paper says the interview took place sometime in 2009.

I asked Kane, Lublin and Journal standards editor Alix Freedman for comment, but the Journal responded through a spokeswoman, who said “we don’t comment on our news gathering.”

Now it’s possible that York agreed to some sort of “Deep Throat” terms, which would allow his comments to be published after his death, but that seems unlikely. Even if that were the case, the nature of any sourcing agreement wasn’t disclosed to readers.

Or it’s possible that the quote was gathered in the pursuit of some story that hadn’t panned out, and it made sense to the editors to break it out now. But that, too, seems farfetched, because the quotes represent significant news on their own.

Any unilateral decision by a national news organization to publish the contents of an interview after the death of a source would raise serious journalistic issues. Do reporters and sources now have to include a post-mortem clause in any off-the-record deals?

A case could even be made for allowing the breaking of off-the-record agreements in certain extreme circumstances, I suppose, but not in an instance like this.

At a minimum, the Journal does its readers a disservice by keeping them in the dark about why it held news for at least three months until after a source died.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.