Born Oct. 4, 1942, is Bloomberg L.P.’s chief content officer. He previously worked at The Wall Street Journal for 23 years, including nine as managing editor, at Forbes for two years as an executive editor, and at Time Inc. for 11 years as editor in chief.
I edited my first feature story during a brief stint on The Wall Street Journal’s Page One desk in 1972. Since then I have often been asked to list the toughest stories I have worked on. They weren’t about wars or politics or crooked executives. They were about Dow Jones & Co. and Time Warner Inc., the two public companies that employed me for more the 35 years.
The two other companies I have worked for — Forbes Inc. and Bloomberg L.P. – are privately held and do everything they can to avoid coverage in their publications. Publicly held companies don’t have that luxury.
While media owners and business executives aren’t compelled to tell their journalists what they are doing, they worry readers and viewers presume the journalists know what is going on at their own companies. Editors, who often know that’s not the case, run the risk of appearing timid if they duck stories about themselves or appearing silly if they print stuff that’s wrong.
While I worked at The Journal, Dow Jones was controlled by Clarence Barron’s descendants and it rarely made news until March 1, 1984, about six months after I had become The Journal’s managing editor. That was the day I learned from John Fedders, then chief of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission, that the SEC was investigating R. Foster Winans, one of The Journal’s “Heard on the Street” writers.
Winans was suspected of leaking to traders the contents of columns prior to publication, and shortly after learning of the investigation, Winans was charged with insider trading. He was convicted on 59 counts of fraud, and, after failing to have the case overturned on appeal, he subsequently served nine months in a federal prison.
Although the charges against Winans damaged The Journal’s reputation, I believed the way we covered ourselves would have greater impact on the paper’s long-term credibility. How could we assert the right to investigate other companies and write about their misdeeds if we were unwilling to cover ourselves with rigor? I told the staff covering Winans that we must never let competition beat us on the story. It never did.
Our most exhaustive reporting resulted in a lengthy front-page profile of Winans. Soon after the story appeared, I received a visit from Donald A. Macdonald, vice chairman of Dow Jones. Macdonald, who had risen through the ranks of the advertising department, was aghast that I had “washed our dirty linen in public.”
Although I was new to my job, I didn’t hesitate to throw him out of my office. I knew that the people who really ran the company, Dow Jones CEO Warren Phillips and Peter Kann, then The Journal’s publisher, would support me. Both were journalists who understood the need to cover ourselves aggressively.
I worried after joining Time Warner in 1994 that things might be different. Although Time Inc.’s reputation for editorial independence had been good, it was sullied when Time was slow to cover the company’s merger with Warner Communications Inc. in 1989.
Following the merger, the company was run by Steve Ross, an entertainment impresario who had begun his career in the funeral business. While I had known Gerald Levin, the merged company’s CEO, before taking the job, I didn’t know how he would react to coverage of himself and his company.
While Jerry had been trained as a lawyer and had never worked as a journalist, I had no reason to worry. Jerry was more committed to editorial independence than any executive I ever worked for, and in 12 years, I never had a serious complaint from him and he never tried to stop publication of a story.
Jerry realized there was no way that Time Inc.’s magazines could duck coverage of Time Warner and its different divisions. During the years I was editor in chief, Entertainment Weekly frequently skewered Warner Brothers movies and Warner Music CDs, and its coverage of one movie executive’s offensive sexual behavior at an Oscar party made top management wince, especially after EW called the errant exec’s studio, New Line, a “cross between Animal House and Caligula.”
In December 1999, three years after Time Warner merged with Turner Broadcasting System, owner of the Atlanta Braves, Sports Illustrated quoted pitcher John Rocker saying he didn’t want to play for a New York team because he might have to ride a subway “to the ballpark, looking like you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids.”
But it was Time’s and Fortune’s coverage of Time Warner’s ill-fated merger with AOL and of some of AOL’s more devious practices before, during, and after the merger that most tested Levin and that made me most proud of what we wrote.
In February 2000, shortly after the merger was announced, Fortune’s Carol Loomis concluded that trying to meet executives’ projections would be “like pushing a boulder up an alp.” Loomis went on to break the story of Levin’s ouster as CEO. Although I know Jerry thought the story unfair, I didn’t know it from him.
I was fortunate to work for executives who were committed to their publications’ editorial independence. Although, I don’t know how free most editors are to cover the companies they work for, I can only hope my experiences have been more the rule than the exception to it.