|The Business Journalist, Winter 2007|
A challenge from the past, a challenge, for the future
By Deborah Nason
NEW YORK — Barney Calame had the power to stop a headline-grabbing, million-dollar trial in its tracks. And he did. Three years later, he’s not sure he did the right thing.
Barney Calame |Calame, now public editor for The New York Times, was the deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal in March 2004. At the time, the high-profile trial of former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski was in its sixth month. |
“We got a call on a Friday, from a correspondent from the Dow Jones News Service,” he remembers. “He had observed a juror make an ‘OK’ sign with her hand toward the defense counsel’s table.”
Calame, covering the duties of his vacationing boss, was in charge and had to decide what to do. Discussions ensued.
“We asked the reporter for more information. We talked to more people – others had seen it, too. But the defense table said, ‘We didn’t see it.’ The judge sensed something was going on, but hadn’t seen it.”
The question in Calame’s mind: Do we publish this juror’s name?
“Though this information is public record,” he says, “it’s traditional to wait until after the end of the trial” to publish juror names.
He conferred with five of the Journal’s top editors, including its libel editor. Everyone came to the same conclusion, but it was up to Calame to make the call. He decided to name her.
His decision was influenced in part from his own upbringing. “Growing up in rural Missouri,” he recalls, “secrecy [of juror names] wasn’t a big deal. There was such a small pool to draw from.
“On Saturday, we put [her name] on Wall Street Journal Online and on the news wire,” he says, “and all hell broke loose. The New York Times did not name her; the New York Post did. The debate raged through the weekend. Within a few days, a mistrial was declared.”
Calame was acutely aware of the millions of dollars that had been spent on the aborted trial.
“I called my boss late Sunday night,” he says. “I told him that I made the best decision that I could, and he supported my decision.”
But several weeks after the mistrial, Calame began to have misgivings. “I decided the readers didn’t gain that much by knowing her name,” he says.
What would he have done differently?
“I would ask myself, ‘Is there some reason this has to come out today – versus next week, or after the trial finished?’ ”
Calame and his colleagues were convinced that the judge would declare a speedy mistrial after the publication of the juror’s name. But they were wrong. The trial continued on another week, until the juror started to receive threatening communications.
Lessons learned: “First of all, don’t buy into assumptions of what may happen, and second, ask: ‘What harm will flow from the public not knowing until the end?’ ”
Looking forward – a challenge for the future
Asked to name an important ethical issue going forward, Calame is unequivocal: maintaining detachment.
“Detachment is not the same thing as objectivity or impartiality. It means not having conflicts of interest.”
Why is this such a big issue now?
“There’s a growing view that business news is a commodity. And, in my opinion, there’s a growing emphasis on the ‘Big Stories.’ ”
In this kind of environment, Calame fears that writers may develop a sense of obligation to valuable sources. “These are the sources that give us great stories – leads and clinchers.”
He is highly concerned that writers may be getting too cozy with sources. “Are [the journalists] writing about their friends? ” Do their stories relate to sources’ companies, competitors or friends?
Editors, particularly assigning editors, he says, should be required to ask writers: “Does your source have anything to do with this?”
Deborah Nason is a freelance business journalist in Connecticut. She received an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation scholarship to attend the Fall Writers Workshop in New York.
Barney Calame is a former president of SABEW. He became the second public editor of The New York Times in May 2005. He retired as the deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal in 2004 after almost 40 years.