By Jack Shafer
A well-lawyered newspaper distinguishes itself by the way it writes around something.
The Wall Street Journal's opening coverage of the corporate shake-up at Citigroup appeared in its Jan. 23 edition, where the paper noted the "ouster" of Citigroup executive Todd Thomson.
The paper didn't explain exactly why Thomson had been ousted but allowed that it "came amid internal tension over his judgment and expenses, including use of Citigroup's corporate jet, people familiar with the matter said." The next sentence offered an example of Thomson's bad-judgment jetting, reporting:
On one business trip in November, for instance, Mr. Thomson flew with a group of Citigroup employees to China—and left them there to make their own flight arrangements home, at the company's expense, while he flew back on the corporate jet with Maria Bartiromo, a CNBC correspondent, one of these people said.
It's fair to assume that Thomson and Bartiromo flew back alone, even though the piece doesn't say so. It merely states that Thomson left behind the group with whom he flew to China. But by not overtly stating Thomson and Bartiromo's aloneness, the Journal has it both ways: It's not saying the two were romantically linked, and it's not saying they weren't.
The Journal followed its Citigroup story the next day, Jan. 24 ($), reporting that Thomson "had used more than $5 million from his division's marketing budget to sponsor a new television program for the Sundance Channel." One of the program's hosts was to be Bartiromo.
Deeper into the story, the Journal offers these two paragraphs (emphasis added):
Inside the bank, Mr. Thomson's friendship with Ms. Bartiromo became an issue. When Mr. Druskin, then Citigroup's investment-banking chief, took his management team to a holiday dinner in 2005 at the ritzy Daniel restaurant, he spotted Mr. Thomson having dinner with the CNBC anchor [Bartiromo], according to people familiar with the situation. Word of the sighting spread through Citigroup the next day. A Citigroup spokeswoman says Mr. Druskin has no comment.
In recent months, some Citigroup executives advised Mr. Thomson to reduce his contact with Ms. Bartiromo, a person familiar with the matter says. But he justified the outings as good for business because clients enjoyed access to the CNBC anchor, according to another person with knowledge of the matter. Mr. Thomson noted to associates that his unit was showing better growth than any other Citigroup businesses, this person says.
Delineating a friendship that includes a trans-Pacific flight alone in a corporate jet, an apparently significant sighting in an expensive restaurant, and a dressing down in which a corporate executive is told to reduce his contact with his friend of the opposite sex, all but draws the doughnut and tosses the hot dog through it. On Jan. 26, the Journal rehashes some of the Thomson-Bartiromo story, referring to their jet trip home from Asia, their "friendship," and their "relationship" (twice). The story breaks new ground in reporting that Thomson tried and failed to get Bartiromo on his jet more than a year ago, while entertaining clients in Montana.
Nudge, nudge, say no more!
You can almost hear the Journal reporters snicker when they write that CNBC insisted that any jet trips taken by Bartiromo "fell under the 'source development' section of its code of ethics." Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!
Having dumped the compost, planted the seed, and fertilized and watered the earth, the Journal leaves it to nobody's imagination what species the flowering Thomson-Bartiromo friendship, relationship, and contact is without actually coming out and writing anything that 1) they can't prove and 2) invites a libel suit. This is the sort of copy a clever lawyer directs reporters to write when they "know" something but can't prove it. Leave it to the reader to assemble the meaning of the facts in their minds, the wise libel attorney tells his clients.
The Jan. 26 New York Times also walks the cow around the barn by noting that both Thomson and Bartiromo are married. Or maybe I'm reading too much into both that story and the headline to David
Carr's Jan. 29 column in the Times: "Citigroup and CNBC Cozy Up."
Today's Newsweek takes a more disingenuous approach than the Journal, employing the old trick of citing sources in no position to know the truth. "The mainstream press is questioning Bartiromo's journalistic ethics," quoth Newsweek, "while bloggers are insinuating that the Banker and the Anchor may have had more than just professional ties." Newsweek would never do anything so irresponsible as that!
Is Newsweek reading the same Wall Street Journal I am? The most extensive mainstream coverage to appear is the Journal's, and it has brushed so many coats of innuendo onto the story that there's no need to cite blogger naughtiness to speculate about Thomson and Bartimoro's romance, or lack thereof. At least Britain's Private Eye magazine accepts responsibility for its own impiety whenever it wants to imply an unprintable intimate relationship by referring to a "Ugandan discussion" or "Ugandan relations." (See the warring etymologies on Usenet and UgandanDiscussions.co.uk.)
Sometimes reporters write around the subject they want you to pick up on. Other times they just buzz over the subject, as did three top Washington Post reporters on Jan. 10, 1989. Their tiny story—just 245 words—announced that Jennifer Fitzgerald was about to be appointed chief of protocol by the new administration. As you may recall, it was widely rumored during the 1988 presidential campaign that Fitzgerald had gone Ugandan with Vice President George Bush, for whom she had worked many years.
The rumors were without foundation, as the late Ann Devroy, one of the three authors of the infamous Post story, would acknowledge in 1992 to the Post's Howard Kurtz. "I spent two solid months looking into this in the early 1980s and I never found any evidence of it," said Devroy, who worked for Gannett News Service in those years.
No evidence, but plenty of room for innuendo. Devroy's collaborators were Maralee Schwartz and current NewsHour senior correspondent Gwen Ifill, and their lede reads (emphasis added): Jennifer Fitzgerald, who has served President-elect George Bush in a variety of positions, most recently running the vice presidential Senate offices, is expected to be named deputy chief of protocol in the new administration, sources said yesterday.
Whether Thomson and Bartiromo were getting it on, I can't tell you. Neither, despite their elbow nudges, can the Journal or Newsweek.