Ethics lapse at Time Inc

The blogosphere is all atwitter

this afternoon about an article

Greg Lindsay wrote about Nick Denton, and Denton’s response.

Blogfight! If you want to see Lindsay’s response to Denton (and me), it’s below.

The name-calling is fun: Denton calls Lindsay an "obsessed and confused"

"gossip columnist", and gets off this zinger: "Greg Lindsay is

about as reliable as a journalist who turns to an Iraqi exile for intelligence

on Saddam’s hidden nukes." (Funny: I have a suspicion that being compared

to Judith Miller might not strike Lindsay as all that much of an insult.)

More interesting to me, however, is the email from Denton which Lindsay reproduces

at the top of page 2 of his article:

From:
To:
Subject:
Date:
Nick Denton
Greg Lindsay
Calacanis
Tue,13 Apr 2004 11:16:27 -0400

Hey, Greg — not sure whether you’re still doing your business-of-blogging story. But here’s a possible peg.

[Jason] Calacanis has commitments for $4M from Mark Cuban and an Israeli investor, possibly Yossi Vardi. You didn’t hear it from me.

Like I told you, Calacanis is a much better business story than I am.

Nick

"You didn’t hear it from me"? It doesn’t get much more off-the-record

than that, and Denton confirms that "Yes, Lindsay reprinted an off-the-record

email without permission." Lindsay, on the other hand, says that he "did

not extend any off-the-record privileges to" Denton, and therefore is not

bound by any unilateral declaration of confidentiality.

But it’s not just Lindsay who reprinted that email, either: It’s Business 2.0

magazine, published by the Fortune group of Time Inc. This is a big-time magazine,

with a rate base of 550,000, and a page rate of $53,000. It’s not a scrappy

zine, and it surely considers itself bound by all normal conventions of journalistic

ethics.

So what made this high-profile national magazine decide to print an explicitly

off-the-record communication from a pretty important person in the new-media

universe? The whole article is mildly antagonistic towards Denton, but this

looks like a gratuitous attempt to break up whatever rapprochement he and Calacanis

might have been moving towards. (Calacanis even went so far as to say that the

two were friends, at the New York Bloggers event

earlier this month.)

Worse, however, printing this email must surely do some serious damage to Lindsay,

Business 2.0, and Time Inc generally, regarding their treatment of sources.

Email is the number one method of communicating these days, and I’m sure that

Business 2.0 reporters get off-the-record emails on a constant basis. As of

now, any of their sources who pick up the June issue of the magazine will come

to the eminently reasonable conclusion that the editors have no problem with

reprinting such emails.

Will the flow of tips into Business 2.0 slow as a result of this article appearing?

I don’t know, but it seems entirely possible. The email from Denton to Lindsay

was not particularly newsworthy in and of itself, and didn’t even add much to

the rest of the story: it could have been left out at very little detriment

to the article. But Lindsay and his editors decided to keep it in, maybe in

juvenile retaliation for not getting the long interview with Denton they’d been

hoping for.

If I was running the Fortune group at Time Inc, I’d be asking some extremely

pointed questions of Josh Quittner, the editor of Business 2.0, right now. What

are your rules for printing off-the-record emails? When, if ever, is it appropriate?

And what on earth made it appropriate in this instance?

Denton seems more concerned about broader errors within the piece, and, not

knowing the truth, I have no idea whether he or Lindsay is right on that front.

But journalists make mistakes the whole time, and if Denton wouldn’t speak to

him, one can understand why Lindsay might run with revenue estimates from someone

else. Ethical lapses are worse, however, and redound not only on the writer

but also on the magazine and its publisher. Maybe Denton doesn’t care: he’s

been accused of worse himself.

But Time Inc really should.

UPDATE: Greg Lindsay writes:

My editors and I have a reason and a reasoning for running Nick’s email.

The backstory to this, which Nick, of course, is not going to mention, is that

he was actively hostile to this story throughout most of the process, stonewalling

for weeks before relenting, unbidden, only a few days before deadline.

Nick was approached about this story in late March, at which time he unequivocally

refused to work with me, despite the fact that it was pitched as a positive

story. (And while Nick might rant at length about it on his site, even he admits

on his blog that I make him "out to be more cunning than I am — but that’s

kind of flattering." Which it was meant to be.)

But Nick said no. And furthermore, he flatly refused to grant me access to his

writers and vowed to obstruct my access to his friends and figures in his past.

That was fine. My editors and I resolved to write around him — all this meant

was that he couldn’t spin us — and I didn’t speak to Nick while reporting most

of this story.

Then, out of the blue, Nick sent the email that appears in the story.

The reason we published it: This story was about how "Nick ticks,"

to paraphrase the headline. His decision to send that email after freezing me

out was indicative of Nick’s business tactics and media manipulation. You or

he or anyone can claim I’m just bitter that he wouldn’t talk to me, but plenty

of his embittered "associates" did, and sending that email reflected

a cunning that I heard about at length while reporting this story. He was trying

to take the heat off himself while potentially queering his competitor’s deal.

I know for a fact that he spread that information around — in fact, I wasn’t

even the first person who asked Jason about it at Bloggercon. That was actually

Rick Bruner, who Nick knows from their Budapest days. And I don’t know what

this talk is about a "rapprochement" between Nick and Jason. I know

that Jason genuinely likes Nick, but their relationship is a one-way street

when it comes to respect.

The reasoning behind our decision to publish it: Nick was not a source at the

time he sent that email. He was an openly hostile subject whom I was not in

communication with. I did not extend any off-the-record privileges to him –

he simply assumed I would be delighted to do so in an attempt to curry favor.

I did later extend that privilege to him, and I’m not about to reprint our later

emails, phone conversations, etc. But you’re implying that I, my editors, and

Henry Luce violated a source agreement with him. We didn’t, because I made no

such agreement regarding that email. He can’t have it both ways.

I could go on — this whole notion that I’m bitter because Choire Sicha repeatedly

called me a metrosexual is absurd. It was a joke, people. And Nick’s ravings

that Josh Quittner and I are bitter because we missed out on the boom are hysterical

too, Josh and I agree. Two points though: I assume the truth about Gawker Media

and Kinja will appear in an upcoming issue of Wired, since Nick’s friend and

business partner Chris Anderson assigned a lengthy piece on Nick as well. Those

relationships will be disclosed, I’m certain, but still. And I think it’s funny

that Nick grandstands to the NY Times that he and Wonkette are practically beyond

good and evil but he’s miffed about this.

Sincerely,

Greg Lindsay

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One Response to Ethics lapse at Time Inc

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    Greg Lindsay’s article in Business 2.0 on Nick Denton — an unauthorized mini-biography of sorts of blogging’s greatest living impresario — irked the…

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