the audit

The Dead Source Who Keeps on Giving

Fortune joins the WSJ in putting Jerome York on the record after his death
January 18, 2011

Back in March, I noticed The Wall Street Journal appearing to burn an off-the-record source a few days after he died.

Now it’s Fortune‘s turn to put the same source on the record posthumously. And it, unlike the WSJ, at least tells readers that its conversation with Jerome York was off the record:

However, during that absence, Fortune can report, Jobs also took an unpublicized flight to Switzerland to undergo an unusual radiological treatment at the University of Basel for neuroendocrine cancer, according to Jerry York, the Apple (AAPL) director who died in March 2010.

Yesterday, Apple announced the third known absence by Jobs for medical reasons over the last 7 years. York told me about the treatment, which was not available in the U.S., in the context of our discussions about Jobs, his health and Apple’s future. Under our agreement at the time, York wanted the facts of Jobs’s treatment in Switzerland to remain out of the news. He didn’t say whether the board knew of it. (With York’s death, the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place.)

This raises several questions. First, why did Fortune sit on this string for ten months if the off-the-record agreement was mooted by York’s death?

Second, who didn’t have York as an off-the-record source?

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Third, how common is it to burn dead sources? We now have the Journal and Fortune, apparently, burning the same guy. That raises the question of whether York agreed to allow the information out after he died, though that seems very unlikely (I’ve got a question out to Fortune and will update with any response).

Fourth, would this have happened with another company? I’ve noticed how Apple makes the press forget its cherished ideals and standards in pursuit of rumor and speculation?

Most important, is it ethical to burn a dead source because they’re dead? Here’s what I wrote about the Journal‘s piece back in March:

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.

The same applies here. When you agree to go off the record, that doesn’t mean “off the record unti I die”—unless you negotiated it that way. Another way to put it: an off-the-record agreement is an oral contract between the source and the journalist. That contract isn’t voided by one party’s death.

Further, these news organizations use anonymous sources all the time. So if you’re going to burn a dead guy to invade a barely-hanging-on-guy’s medical privacy (and let me be clear, I don’t think you should!), why not have the respect to just call him a “person familiar with the matter”?

Or maybe, more precisely: “a person who was familiar with the matter.”

The New York Times reporter Micheline Maynard gets it. She says on Twitter:

Jerry York told others of us details about Steve Jobs’ illness. To me, a promise is a promise.

Rationalize that.

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.