What we learned from that long, strange lawyer’s letter to Business Insider

March 13, 2024

Last fall, as then-Harvard president Claudine Gay was facing her first allegations of plagiarism, the Clare Locke law firm sent a stern letter to the New York Post, which was reporting the story. “These allegations of plagiarism are demonstrably false,” the firm warned the Post, adding that the paper was relying “on a fatally flawed understanding of what ‘plagiarism’ is.” 

That didn’t work out so well, particularly for Gay, who quit in January after just six months in her post, or for Clare Locke, whose role came under fire from various outlets, including the National Review, which used the headline “Harvard Plays Dirty.”

But it wouldn’t be Clare Locke’s last case involving a plagiarism-accused academic. Just a few weeks later, billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and his wife, Dr. Neri Oxman, deployed the firm to defend Oxman, a talented computational designer and former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, who was facing a similar investigation by Business Insider

As anyone willing to wade through his Melville-length tweetstorms knows, Ackman was unhappy because Business Insider had published stories accusing Oxman of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation and other materials while she was at MIT. He took his complaints not just to his million-plus followers on X, but also to executives at Axel Springer, owner of Business Insider.

Mimicking Ackman’s penchant for grandiloquence, the firm’s Elizabeth Locke sent a 77-page, 22,000-or-so-word letter to executives at Axel Springer, claiming that Oxman was defamed and demanding corrective action (but not a nickel for Oxman—more on that later). It’s quite a document, and having been on the receiving end of other firms’ letters—none of which were this wordy or which resulted in a successful verdict or settlement—I can attest that it stands alone not just in its length but in its kitchen-sink compilation of grievances. That said, once you sift through the letter, you’ll find some credible concerns about the way Business Insider reported its stories. 

Normally we might not care about such disputes, but this one matters because Ackman, the founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, has the resources to drag out a long, expensive lawsuit. And Clare Locke is known for its teeth-bared tactics against news outlets, with targets including the New York Times (sued by Project Veritas in a pending defamation case) and Rolling Stone (which lost a suit filed by a University of Virginia official). Moreover, Ackman has made himself a highly public figure, urging universities to crack down on anti-Semitism and backing the failed campaign of presidential candidate Dean Phillips—something I’ve criticized a few times.

Having plowed through this entire document, I want to offer a few do’s and don’ts, both for journalists who write such pieces and lawyers who blast them. (Business Insider journalists referred requests for comment to the company’s PR department, which went silent. Elizabeth Locke did respond to several questions.) 

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Don’t go all in on the anti-Semitism allegations unless you’ve got the goods.

Clare Locke wants to make it look like BI hates Jews. But with so much of that around these days, you’d think they’d muster better evidence. They try to paint BI founder Henry Blodget as an anti-Semite because, in 2012, he wrote a piece that was originally titled “Why Do People Hate Jews?” which was a shallow but not racist look at the causes of anti-Semitism. (He later changed the headline.) They note that Katherine Long, lead reporter on the Oxman stories, “was a member of the Pro-Palestinian Coalition at her college.” That is the last of eight activities she lists as a student at Brown University, where she graduated around a decade ago. They scoured Long’s social media profile and dug up a post in which she faintly criticized former diplomat Henry Kissinger and financier Henry Kravis. The firm then notes, without much in the way of explanation: “Kravis is, and Kissinger was, Jewish.”

Do pay attention to subject lines in emails.

A reporter might want to think twice about sending an email at 10:29 on a Wednesday night with this subject line: “Journalist on deadline | Plagiarism by your wife.”

Don’t think you’re making your case by dredging up something a journalist did when he was around the age of puberty.

As Clare Locke notes, BI executive editor John Cook once wrote some terrible things. He used the N-word. He shared unfounded sexual rumors. He mocked a teacher for her polyester dresses. 

Also: He was thirteen years old at the time. Ronald Reagan was president at the time. And his 2013 confessional Jezebel essay—in which he contacts some of the victims of his awfulness, and apologizes—is a good read. (Plus, no judge is likely to allow this into a trial anyway.)

Don’t do stealth corrections, especially on such sensitive stories.

Clare Locke quotes a pseudonymous X account as saying that they reached out to a BI reporter with some concerns about the January 4 story, and that afterward, BI made stealth corrections—done without a note acknowledging the error—and the reporter then blocked the account. Bottom line: making corrections without alerting readers is not good policy. (This is one of several things Business Insider’s journalists and PR people wouldn’t comment upon.)

Don’t cite dictionary entries unless you’re going to cite the whole thing.

A lot of this controversy revolves around whether Oxman intended to copy information from other sources. It’s not a bad question; motive matters! So her lawyers cite the first part of the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of plagiarism: “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.” Then they leave off the second part, which is inconveniently more inclusive of Oxman’s errors: to “use (another’s production) without crediting the source.” 

Clare Locke also notes at length that MIT has a policy that can, in parts, be pretty forgiving of unintentional plagiarism. But many universities, including Columbia (where I teach), are far less so: “The use of words, phrases, or ideas belonging to the student, without properly citing or acknowledging the source, is prohibited.”

Do think twice before calling a company’s directors to force journalists to retract a story. 

Amid the swirl of allegations, Ackman was texting and calling Kravis, who has served as an Axel Springer director and shareholder, to force a retraction. He also texted and spoke with Martin Varsavsky, another company director, beseeching him to read his lengthy X post. “Done and agree,” Varsavsky responded, even indicating that to take it all in, he’d had to overcome spotty internet signals in the Uruguayan countryside. 

Alas, the pressure didn’t work. It almost never does. It often backfires. 

Do give subjects of your complicated stories time to respond. 

After BI’s first Oxman story ran, the site quickly assembled another piece with more examples of duplicated copy. According to Clare Locke, BI reporter Long “sent Pershing Square’s head of communications a 7,071-word email that contained 28 new allegations of purported plagiarism and demanded comment ‘immediately.’” BI then published that story ninety-two minutes later, the firm says, adding that Long should’ve known “it would be impossible for Dr. Oxman to fact check her allegations in an hour and a half.”

Locke’s letter stated that when BI reached out for comment on its first story, an Ackman spokesperson responded “that Dr. Oxman would wait to publish her statement until after Business Insider published its article.” Even in that case, though, journalists need to give people adequate time to respond to complicated stories. 

BI’s tight time frame indicated that its journalists were “not operating in good faith,” Elizabeth Locke said in a written response to my questions. “Therefore, my client elected to see what would be included in print rather than guessing and providing comment in a vacuum.”

Do respond to a complainant with the blandest language possible.

Editors get correction requests all the time. Few of those complainants are as powerful as Ackman, but nonetheless, you have to take them seriously. The best immediate response is usually something along the lines of, “Thanks for your note, we’ll look into it.” 

But not Blodget. When confronted with Ackman’s concerns, he wrote back, “I agree with you. Academia needs to narrow the definition” of plagiarism. Blodget then awkwardly added a slather of praise for Ackman: “If you ever get sick of managing money, you will be in great demand as a writer.… It is harder than it looks!”

Do say who deserves the judgment you’re hoping to win.

Clare Locke concludes its letter with an unusual request. The firm says it isn’t seeking compensation for Oxman or Ackman. Instead, it wants a “fund to compensate other victims of Business Insider’s libelous reporting.” 

Asked who those victims are, Locke responded to me: “We have been contacted by a meaningful number of people who were victims of Business Insider’s defamatory reporting, and we believe there are scores of other victims who have not contacted us. We wish to respect the privacy of everyone who has reached out to us, and we have nothing further to share publicly.”

Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).