Wall Street Journal on the Line

On Monday, according to The Wall Street Journal, Barry Sternlicht told investors in his Starwood Capital Group who’d dialed into a teleconference: “We’re bidding on a bank.”

The report cited “people familiar with the matter” as identifying the unnamed bank as Corus Bankshares Inc., but Journal reporters Lingling Wei and Nick Timiraos also quoted from the call without any attribution, or information about where their notes on the call came from. Were they on the line?

It’s not unknown: When there’s a private conference call, the attendees get a phone number and a code to dial. Theoretically, anyone who gets the right phone number and code (and is smart enough to put his phone on mute) can be along for the ride without anyone knowing any better.

A call to Mr. Sternlicht’s office was not immediately returned, and a spokesman for The Wall Street Journal refused to comment on how the paper reports its stories, so it was impossible to confirm whether the reporters were, in fact, privy to the call, and whether Mr. Sternlicht had given them access to such a big scoop. (Ms. Wei had referred calls to the spokesman.)

The Journal spokesman also declined to say whether the paper has an editorial policy about listening in on such a call without the parties’ permission. That’s pretty standard: It’s part of what’s behind the curtain about how reporters get important scoops.

Of course, reporters get leaked private documents all the time. And have people present at meetings tell them what happened verbatim. Sometimes reporters even get surreptitious recordings. Is this any different?

“Well, that’s a good question,” said Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, as he paused to ruminate.

“When I was a young reporter, listening at a door was not a bad thing. And it sounds something like that. On the other hand, I think of that guy from Cincinnati who listened to people’s taped messages, and that’s of course illegal and a crime,” Mr. Hoyt said.

Without knowing the details of the call and whether there was any kind of off-the-record admonition at the outset, Mr. Hoyt seemed to think it was equivalent to a meeting.

“I’d like to think about it some more, but my instinct is I don’t see the problem,” Mr. Hoyt said.