On Sept. 21, Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet turned 50 years old. When he stepped out into the newsroom that afternoon, following the daily page-one meeting, he was greeted with a birthday cake and a prolonged, loud ovation.
The crowd numbered more than a hundred. Two hundred? It sprawled uncountably out of view, around an angle of the newsroom: columnists and top editors and copy editors all mingling, upbeat and merry. The L.A. Times celebrates birthdays, but not like this; at the edges, it was impossible to hear Mr. Baquet’s remarks, let alone hope for a piece of cake.
“It was sort of a cream-filled cake with my picture on it, which was very nice,” Mr. Baquet said.
The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” with gusto. “It was a very moving scene,” Mr. Baquet said. “I felt very close to my newsroom.”
Did he make a wish? “I made a wish,” he said, “and I’m not going to tell you what it is.”
One week before the party, Mr. Baquet had startled the newsroom—and his bosses at the Tribune Company, and the entire newspaper industry—by expressing his wishes. He told Times reporter James Rainey, for a Sept. 14 story, that he had a “difference of opinion” with Tribune about whether the paper should keep cutting costs. In late August, Tribune had asked for a list of more cuts, and Mr. Baquet had said no, first privately and then out in the open, on the record, in the pages of his own newspaper.
Even more startling was the fact that Times publisher Jeffrey Johnson, a Tribune-bred executive, was siding with Mr. Baquet. Mr. Johnson told Mr. Rainey that “newspapers can’t cut their way into the future.”
Since then, Mr. Baquet has declined to repeat or amplify his comments. (The L.A. Times account remains the definitive one.) But they have reverberated, and loudly, rattling the Tribune chain to its foundations.
“At some point,” Mr. Baquet told The Observer in August of 2005, after his appointment as editor had been announced, “newspaper companies are going to have to debate what the right profit targets are.”
Now the debate is on. On Sept. 18, Rinker Buck, a page-one writer at the Tribune-owned Hartford Courant, posted a 3,000-word open letter to his publisher on the Romenesko media-news site, taking Mr. Baquet’s refusal as a starting point and listing specific financial failings of Tribune, totaling $1.2 billion in waste. Mr. Buck demanded to know his own paper’s operating margins. “How much cash are we shipping, on a monthly and yearly basis, to Chicago?” he wrote.
Some 400 Los Angeles Times staffers signed a petition to Tribune management backing Mr. Baquet and Mr. Johnson.
“I think that the Tribune, like a lot of companies that own newspapers, has to ask itself the question: Does it really want to own newspapers?” said Times reporter Joe Mathews. “I suspect at some level, the answer is no.”
On Sept. 26, Tribune C.E.O. Dennis FitzSimons faced an angry Baltimore Sun staff at a company town-hall meeting at Baltimore’s Center Stage. Afterward, The Sun’s Newspaper Guild chapter gave Mr. FitzSimons a letter of protest signed by 100 members, saying they “stand with our colleagues at the Los Angeles Times.”
In The Chicago Tribune’s own coverage, veiled financial figures were suddenly out in the open: The Los Angeles Times was cited as making a 20 percent annual profit.
Who will collect that margin in years to come? In the middle of all the debate, Tribune announced that it was looking for ways to restructure the company. There are nearly as many possible outcomes as there are analysts to hypothesize about them: Tribune could keep its papers and spin off its broadcast properties; it could spin off its smaller papers and keep the big-city ones, it could go private; it could suffer a leveraged buyout. It could rebuild around its malcontent West Coast trophy property or sell it off to a private owner—one of the local billionaires who’ve come courting Tribune. (Employees, one Times staffer said, are going back to an unflattering biography of David Geffen and “underlining all the parts that make him look human.”)
“Once the company’s in play, a lot of different things can happen,” said John Carroll, Mr. Baquet’s predecessor as editor.
Mr. Carroll’s resignation in 2005—his own act of rebellion against the cost-cutting—may have strengthened Mr. Baquet’s hand.
“If Dean and Jeff left,” Mr. Carroll said, “it could raise the question of whether there’s going to have to be a new editor and publisher annually at the L.A. Times.”
And Mr. Baquet has the leverage that comes with his own talents. He came to the Times in 2000 because there was more room for advancement there than at The New York Times, where he was trapped below the Howell Raines administration, in the layer of might-have-a-future-someday editors. Had Arthur Sulzberger Jr. made a few different decisions—better decisions, by some lights—along the way, Mr. Baquet might be running The New York Times even now.
Where The New York Times relies on institutional preeminence, the Los Angeles Times is as good as its best people. Mr. Baquet raises that mark—as long as he can hold out.
Since the news went public, Mr. Baquet has seemed publicly serene. Mr. Carroll said he talks to Mr. Baquet about three times a week.
“In some ways, it’s better to know where you stand,” Mr. Carroll said, “even if it’s a hard stance to take, than to be cutting and cutting and not knowing precisely how far you’re willing to go.”
“Dean obviously has clarity in his own mind,” Mr. Carroll said, “and that’s a good thing to have.”
Hewlitt-Packar’d! Snooped-On Reporters Ponder Ethics, Lawsuits
Spied-upon New York Times reporter John Markoff didn’t write about Hewlett-Packard in the first two weeks after the H-P journalist-spying story broke. But on Sept. 22, Mr. Markoff received a “contributed reporting” credit for a story co-bylined by Damon Darlin and Matt Richtel.
“The Times has decreed that I will not have bylines on this story,” said Mr. Markoff.
On Sept. 26, the C.E.O. of Hewlett-Packard, Mark Hurd, gave his first lengthy interview on the journalist-spying scandal that has plagued his company. He gave that interview to Peter Burrows of BusinessWeek. “Until news began breaking early this month,” Mr. Burrows wrote, “that Hewlett Packard (HPQ) had spied on its board members and others to find the source of boardroom leaks …. ”
Mr. Burrows was one of those “others.”
So Mr. Markoff is not the only technology reporter in this precarious situation. He just may be more accustomed to the entanglement.
Mr. Markoff grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., where Hewlett-Packard “was the company of my company town,” he said, and also attended school with William Hewlett Jr. Now-former C.E.O. Patricia Dunn gave the eulogy at his uncle’s funeral in 2004.
Journalistic neutrality is a challenge to come by in the H-P case. Targeted reporters and their employers must work through antagonistic, possibly litigious, relationships between the company and the publications, while still getting the story covered.
“We have, and will continue to disclose that [Peter Burrows] was a target of HP’s leak investigation whenever he writes about the company,” wrote BusinessWeek editor in chief Stephen Adler, in a statement e-mailed to The Observer on Sept. 26.
However, when Mr. Burrow’s interview with Mr. Hurd was published later that day, there was no disclosure.
At News.com, the Web site produced by CNet Networks, the three journalists targeted—Dawn Kawamoto, Stephen Shankland and Tom Krazit—are not permitted to cover the Hewlett-Packard story. “This was an editorial decision which I agree with,” said Ms. Kawamoto.
However, they can serve as sources.
“As victims, we get information from investigators,” said Ms. Kawamoto. And since her colleagues are aware of this, she said, “they’ll whip out their notepad and come to my desk.”
At The Wall Street Journal, two reporters—Pui-Wing Tam and George Anders—were targeted by Hewlett-Packard. Now, one of them is permitted to cover the story.
“Both reporters can cover H-P generally,” wrote Robert Christie, a Dow Jones spokesman, via e-mail. “Ms. Tam isn’t engaged in reporting on the H-P surveillance story because she appears to have been one of the principal targets of that investigation. We have seen no evidence to date that shows Mr. Anders to have been a target, and so we would have no reason to keep him off the story.”
Mr. Christie’s statement seemed to contradict a Sept. 22 first-person account by Elizabeth Corcoran, Mr. Anders’ wife, which was published on Forbes.com. “We entered the story,” Ms. Corcoran wrote, “when a beleaguered sounding HP spokesman called us at home one evening to tell us about the probe and apologize for the fact that investigators hired by HP decided to snoop through our phone records.”
On Sept. 14, Mr. Anders received an e-mail from Michael Moeller, an H-P spokesman, urging him to call. Later that evening, Mr. Moeller—who was also a victim of pretexting—informed Mr. Anders that he was targeted.
“H-P told Anders that he had been pretexted,” said Mr. Christie, clarifying the Journal statement by phone, “but we have not seen any written evidence of it.”
“We checked my home landline records and cell-phone records, and in both cases, we didn’t find any signs that someone had hacked into them,” said Mr. Anders.
While the reporters are or are not reporting, presumably many of them are consulting with lawyers. And what is a pretexted reporter to do?
One could follow Ralph Nader’s example. Mr. Nader was assailed by General Motors in the mid-60’s. “They had the private detectives; they trailed me around the country, here in Washington, going to Capitol Hill,” Mr. Nader said by phone. “They had young damsels trying to seduce me in supermarkets, cookie-counter places. They interviewed people going back to my law-school classmates under the pretext that they were doing a pre-employment scan. But they wouldn’t say who the employer was.”
He sued the company for intrusion and won a settlement of $425,000.
When he read about the Hewlett-Packard scandal in The Times, Mr. Nader’s legal mind quickly went to work. “It’s a potential privacy suit, tort suit, invasion of privacy,” he said.
Mr. Markoff of The Times said that he, for one, will not be suing Hewlett-Packard. “The less I have to do with litigation, the better,” he said.
Ms. Kawamoto declined to comment on whether she would sue Hewlett-Packard.
“We are still monitoring the situation closely and will be determining in the future what steps need to be taken,” said Roger Myers, outside counsel for CNet and its reporters.
According to one lawyer familiar with aspects of the investigation, the current focus of the journalists and their employers is on protecting their records from being accessed by various governmental entities—California Attorney General Bill Lockyer among them—looking into Hewlett-Packard’s conduct.
But after that, lawyers may find that California, where Hewlett-Packard and most of the reporters investigated are based, is even more protective of an individual’s privacy than New York, which was Mr. Nader’s venue.
In the past, “courts have protected [reporters’ records] from subpoena, but because they weren’t being subpoenaed straight on, because they were being obtained in this surreptitious manner, they got no protection at all,” said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center.
Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said, “I think the right way to say this is that journalists in California would be able to pursue privacy claims against Hewlett-Packard.”
Traditional invasion-of-privacy claims require the information to have been disseminated or published, which it wasn’t, at least beyond the company. The claim that would probably apply is the so-called “intrusion into seclusion” charge, accusing Hewlett-Packard of prying into private life. The reporter’s lawyer has to persuade a jury that what Hewlett-Packard did was “highly offensive to a reasonable person.”
Not everyone thinks the reporters will have a strong case. “Intrusion means generally if you surreptitiously spy on someone, if you wiretap them, if you take a telescope and look inside their window—these kinds of viewings of private or intimate information,” explained Slade Metcalf, a media attorney. “That would generally sustain a claim for intrusion, but you don’t have that here,” in the case of the inappropriately accessed phone records. The physical trailing is another matter, he said.
Reporters are more commonly the ones accused of invading privacy—but they often have the First Amendment on their side. “It’s a really interesting inversion here. Hewlett-Packard has no First Amendment right on its side, and the journalists have a heightened privacy interest,” said Mr. Rotenberg. (Newspaper people are intimately familiar with the intertwinement between wiretapping and reporting. Mr. Rotenberg lamented the fact that the House Energy and Commerce Committee put off hearings on the N.S.A. wiretapping program to address the Hewlett-Packard investigation.)
“The First Amendment is designed to protect all of us against, and only against, the government,” said another prominent media lawyer, Floyd Abrams. “The whole theory of it is that government misbehaves, abuses power, and has an army and police to lock people up and deprive them of their liberties; the press vis-à-vis a private corporation has the same rights as anyone else does.”
In any event, reporters are not the only ones affected by issues of neutrality. Then there’s Bill Keller, the Times executive editor.
On Sept. 20, The Times ran an editorial entitled “Outsourcing Ethics,” which lambasted Hewlett-Packard’s “sleazy investigation,” and singled out Ms. Dunn, in particular, for her participation in the investigation.
Later that night, in San Francisco, Ms. Dunn was inducted into the Hall of Fame for the Bay Area Council, a local business and public-policy organization. Retired Chevron chief executive George Keller, Bill Keller’s father, was also selected for the hall.
So the younger Mr. Keller gave the keynote speech at the $500-a-plate dinner. Steak with asparagus was served, and the swing band Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers played.
“The general thing that Bill Keller talked about was liberty versus security—when they decide to publish things and when they decide not to publish things,” said John Grubb, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Council.
Reporters were kept at bay.
“I was basically clothes-lined,” said one reporter. “I was grabbed by a smiling P.R. woman. She said, ‘We are not letting you in.’”
There was also a Q&A. Mr. Keller took two questions. The Hewlett-Packard scandal, which would lead to Ms. Dunn’s resignation fewer than 48 hours after the gala, did not come up.
—Michael Calderone and Anna Schneider-Mayerson