All the News That’s Fit to Spin

February 11, 2008

NYTimes and Alex Berenson Email SpinIt looks like we got spun again by The New York Times.

In our zeal to safeguard the integrity of our firm and its blog, we rushed an apology last week to The New York Times and reporter Alex Berenson that now appears to have been premature. The S&A post in question was based on a story that appeared on Portfolio.com earlier in the week. When the Times sent us a statement saying that the original story was “incorrect”, we took the newspaper at its word and felt compelled to retract some of our comments.

Well, it turns out the story wasn’t incorrect. In fact, one could argue that, for the most part, it scored a bulls-eye. The Times insisted that a misdirected email from one of Eli Lilly’s outside attorneys wasn’t responsible for Mr. Berenson’s page-one scoop that the pharmaceutical giant was close to reaching a settlement with federal prosecutors for $1 billion. But Mr. Berenson subsequently admitted on NPR radio, and to the editor of the Pharmalot blog, Ed Silverman, (see his comment on my apology post) that, well, it kinda was.

We could have a field day with the disclosures that have surfaced since our last blog on this topic, but we will stick to the high road and to these two thoughts:

  1. We owe an apology to Portfolio.com for unjustifiably discrediting its story. While some might argue that the misdirected email Mr. Berenson received didn’t have the depth of detailed information about the proposed settlement as the website hinted, by Mr. Berenson’s own admission the details it did offer provided the confirmation he needed to run with the story;
  2. This ongoing email saga illustrates clearly that there is truly no such thing as off-the-record. Once a reporter has their hands on a piece of sensitive information, they will finagle ways to use it, despite any handshake agreements not to. As we are forever telling clients, if you don’t want to see something attributed to you on page one of your local newspaper, it’s best you keep it to yourself.

One final thought: For all the blather about the capriciousness of bloggers and so-called citizen journalists, it is interesting to note how quickly those commenting online about this topic last week were quick to issue corrections and clarifications when it seemed their information was wrong. If nothing else, it’s encouraging to see the old-school principles of fairness and accuracy given the primacy they deserve.