Kneale, craven

July 21, 2010
Dennis Kneale's philosophy of journalism on Twitter or even among his colleagues in the CNBC studio.

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You won’t find many defenders of Dennis Kneale’s philosophy of journalism on Twitter or even among his colleagues in the CNBC studio.

I spent a large chunk of this afternoon debating Kneale on Twitter, and for a while afterwards I thought that time was wasted, since no one had evinced any sympathy for his position at all. But on thinking about it I’ve decided that actually Kneale is being reasonably brave and transparent here, and coming out and saying in public things which many journalists are loathe even to admit in private.

The proximate cause of the discussion was the publication by Peter Lauria of a voicemail that Sumner Redstone, the owner of Viacom, left for him. Redstone wanted to know who had leaked a story to Lauria about Redstone and “a sexy but talentless all-girl band;” he told Lauria, on the voicemail, that “you will be well-rewarded and well-protected” for giving up the source.

There are basically four options that a journalist has on getting a voicemail like that:

  1. Flattered by the personal attention from a billionaire mogul, you can phone him back, give him exactly what he wants, and get some kind of quid pro quo down the line.
  2. Embarrassed for an aging billionaire, you can let the message slide, and give the mogul a pass.
  3. Realizing you have a minor scoop on your hands, you can publish the voicemail.
  4. Realizing you have a potential major scoop on your hands, you can play along, phone Redstone back, and ask him how much he’s willing to pay for the name of the source, taping your conversation all the while.

Lauria is, in Kneale’s words, a “beast” (which is also the name of the site he works for), but Lauria didn’t go all the way: he stopped short of #4 and went with #3 instead.

But that was still far too much for Kneale, who assumes that Redstone considered the message to be off the record, and on those grounds reckons that Lauria is at fault for publishing it. “He may never again be able to have lunch at Michael’s, the midtown Manhattan media mecca,” he writes, rather bathetically.

Of course Lauria violated no confidences here, and really just did his job: if you leave a voicemail for a journalist with no indication that it’s in confidence, and that voicemail is newsworthy, then the journalist is pretty much obliged to publish it.

But Kneale looks at things a different way, and even admits to covering up for Redstone himself, in the past, when Redstone violated SEC rules in an interview at Forbes. “We knew he was off-the-reservation when he did it, so we gave him a pass, didn’t use it,” he tweeted, before backtracking a little on his original statement.

Kneale reveals himself to be a consummate player of the game, saying that it’s “unwise” to “burn sources” (by which he means the likes of Redstone, not the likes of Lauria’s original source). “Sumner will NEVER again give Lauria a free scoop now,” tweets Kneale, who has internalized the idea that if you’re nice to moguls, then moguls will be nice to you. It’s an integral part of the CNBC formula, which regularly gets CEOs onto TV so that it can flatter them by throwing them softball questions and making it seem as though the markets really care what they say. He writes that companies “all the time ‘reward’ us–help me out on this one, i’ll give you a scoop on that one. commonplace.” And he’s fine with that.

But in the era of the Daily Beast and Gawker and even FT Alphaville, not everybody plays that game any more, and the public is much better served for it. Kneale might be happy to reveal that he has frequently been asked by CEOs to burn his own sources, but he’s not going to tell us who they are: he feels it’s his job to keep such juicy information from the public, rather than reveal it to them. And the fact is that he’s in pretty illustrious company.

Once you start working your way up the masthead, and hanging out with moguls at places like Davos and Aspen, this tends to happen to you: you get more comfortable, and less hungry; you think that access is more important than actual stories. Clearly Kneale has reached that place, and in a way I’m impressed that he’s happy to admit it. Most of the swanning-around class of journalists are delusional enough that they’d never do that.

So let’s give three cheers for Peter Lauria, and his colleagues in the blogosphere, who are happy to break unspoken rules which don’t benefit the public if they know there’s a story worth telling. There will always be lots of journalists who are expert at playing the game, and schmoozing important sources. That’s all well and good. But we need feistier hacks as well. And where Kneale goes wrong, with his greybeard act, is by pretending that we don’t, and that the world would be a better place if everybody played the game. It wouldn’t. We need the likes of Lauria; in fact, we need them much more than we need a dozen Dennis Kneales.

Kneale wants to ask what counts as necessary and what counts as gratuitous. Necessary is journalists serving their readers with scoops; gratuitous is 99% of what appears on CNBC, and 100% of what appears when Kneale is on screen. (I’m on the gratuitous side of the line as well.) Good journalists can be found on both sides of the line, but it’s the hungry newsbreakers who are important. The rest of us might be interesting, or entertaining, but we should never be the real soul of any news organization.


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