Yesterday we reported that Microtrend-spouting flack Mark Penn's PR firm was using his Wall Street Journal column to drum up PR business. Penn is ethically compromised. But today, the WSJ tells us they're keeping Penn on as a columnist. Cowards.
This was the Wall Street Journal's first real test of journalism ethics under Rupert Murdoch's ownership. And, surprisingly, they've fucking failed, big time. The story broke yesterday afternoon—complete with a leaked email showing top execs at Burson-Marsteller suggesting how to use the latest column by Penn, their CEO, as a tool to recruit clients from the industry he wrote about. The paper assured us yesterday they were "looking into it," and cited their clear conflict of interest policy. That policy, they assured us, was the Dow Jones Code of Conduct that we excerpted in our own post yesterday, which demands that the company ensure that:
* Our analyses represent our best independent judgments rather than our preferences, or those of our sources, advertisers or information providers;
* Our opinions represent only our own editorial philosophies; or
* There are no hidden agendas in any of our journalistic undertakings.
Well. Didn't take long to throw that away! Today, WSJ spokesman Robert Christie explained the results of the paper's thorough investigation like so:
"Mark has assured us that through our conversations that he's complied with his conflict of interest policy. He does not have any glamping clients nor did they target them before the column appeared."
That's right: The WSJ's investigation consisted of calling Mark Penn and asking him, "Hey, did you comply with that conflict of interest policy?" The world-famous investigative skills of the WSJ in action, ladies and gentlemen. As a follow-up, we asked Christie if he was implying that it's fine for a columnist to go recruiting clients from a column he just wrote after it's published. His reply:
Obviously when you have a contributor, they use a column to market themselves. Clearly what was done is not something that we liked. But we're pretty sure that it's going to stop.
The Wall Street Journal is "pretty sure" that Mark Penn's PR firm will stop using its CEO's purportedly unbiased column as a business recruitment tool! Why are they "pretty sure?" Because Mark Penn said so! Fuck that published email evidence, anyhow! It was on a "blog," and "blogging" hasn't been a Microtrend for like two years.
Here's what this means for you, the reader of the WSJ: You should assume, when you read a Mark Penn column, that Burson-Marsteller will run to the leading companies in any industry mentioned in that column and set up meetings for them with Mark Penn, who will try to use that column as a tool to recruit them as PR clients. If you really want to be safe, intellectually, it only makes sense to also assume that Mark Penn may decide what to write his columns about based on the business needs of Burson-Marsteller—which are, after all, his primary responsibility.
You should also assume that any other WSJ contributing columnist could be doing the same thing. Because the paper clearly does not consider it a firing offense.
Don't worry, Mark Penn. We won't forget about you. We're looking forward to your next column.
[Previously: The Full Story]