The World Business Forum and journalistic ethics

By Felix Salmon
October 6, 2009
blog entry entitled "The Parallel Universe of Leadership Events", in which I attempted to skewer the content-free nature and general mindlessness of such things. My prize was an invite to come back this year, as part of their "Bloggers Hub", so I could repeat the whole experience. I'm not there now, but I might pop along once or twice: it'll be interesting to see how Paul Krugman, for one, approaches such a crowd.

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This time last year, I attended the World Business Forum at Radio City. I came away with a slight ringing in my ears and a blog entry entitled “The Parallel Universe of Leadership Events”, in which I attempted to skewer the content-free nature and general mindlessness of such things. My prize was an invite to come back this year, as part of their “Bloggers Hub“, so I could repeat the whole experience. I’m not there now, but I might pop along once or twice: it’ll be interesting to see how Paul Krugman, for one, approaches such a crowd.

It’s worth asking how Krugman felt himself allowed to take this gig. This is, after all, the man who wrote this:

I do very little paid speaking now, and no consulting, because the New York Times has quite strict rules: basically I can only get paid for speaking to nonprofits that have no possible interest in influencing the content of the column. It’s a good rule – read Eric Alterman’s book “Sound and Fury” to see how speaking fees can corrupt pundits – though it meant that I took a substantial income cut to work for the Times.

The World Business Forum is emphatically not a nonprofit, and it pays its speakers very large sums of money. (That’s how it gets the likes of Jack Welch, Tony Blair, and Bill Clinton to turn up.) So what’s Krugman doing there?

In any case, this annual boondoggle — an event with zero news value, which large companies give to their middle managers so that they can feel important and have a fun couple of days in New York without really working — has managed, incredibly, to get itself an entire dedicated blog at the WSJ. This is probably a function of the fact that the Journal — along with BusinessWeek, Fox Business, and something called ExecuNet — is a “media sponsor” of the Forum. (Those middle managers are exactly the audience that the WSJ wants to reach.)

I don’t for a minute blame the business side of the WSJ for sponsoring the WBF — it’s their job to do such deals. But there’s no indication on the WSJ’s WBF blog that it’s anything other than an editorial-side effort, put together by “reporters and editors at The Wall Street Journal”.

Which leaves just two possibilities, neither of which reflect very well on the WSJ. Either the business side bullied the editorial side into putting together this dedicated blog — which would imply that the wall between the two is porous indeed. Or else the editorial side really believes that the World Business Forum is so inherently newsworthy that it should be blogged by multiple staffers over two days. In which case someone at the WSJ really needs their news judgment examined.

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