Coverage by the New York Times of the O’Dwyer Co. expose of Dean Rotbart’s “Newsroom Confidential” series in 1993 is a case study of a newspaper turning on a source who gave it a good story.

The Times thought so highly of the O’Dwyer expose of what went on in Dean Rotbart’s “Newsroom Confidential” seminar series that it sent a photographer to Rotbart’s house in Ridgewood, N.J., and ran a six-column story on Dec. 27, 1993 that occupied about a third of the page and was illustrated with a three-column picture of Rotbart.

Six-column story in the Dec. 27, 1993 New York Times.
The exposure of what Rotbart was saying about financial journalists caused the PR Society, which hosted the talk at its 1993 conference, to cancel plans to sell a videotape of the talk. It had recorded it with two cameras.

Business Wire, which had helped Rotbart to promote his seminar, announced that, “As of now, we have absolutely no involvement with TJFR (Rotbart’s firm) or its products.” PR Newswire, which sponsored the “Business News Confidential” TJFR directory, acknowledged it had an agreement to co-sponsor many of the 27 Newsroom Confidential seminars planned in 22 cities in 1994 but said it was not required to do so. PRN said it would sponsor the seminars if they were “of value to our clients.”

NYT Provided Twisted Coverage

Columns by William Glaberson in the Times on Dec. 27, 1993 and March 7, 1994 falsely accused this reporter of making a “secret tape” of the talk (a subhead in the Dec. 27 column); of having “slipped in to a sample session”; of printing a “transcript” of the talk, and falsely described Rotbart as a “rival” and “archenemy” of the O’Dwyer Co. when the two firms only competed in a very narrow area.

Rotbart, as he announced early in the talk, was “a reporter, editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal for seven years,” rising to writing the “Heard on the Street” column, which he noted could change the value of stocks by hundreds of millions in a day.

His firm specialized in covering the business press, while that was only a small slice of what the O’Dwyer Co. covered (corporate and agency PR, service firms, general and trade media, about 15 PR and journalist associations, public affairs and lobbying at state and national levels, corporate crises, etc.).

Legal papers writing about the $21.5 million lawsuit that Rotbart launched against this reporter and the O’Dwyer Co. accepted that the two firms were in competition but did not realize how thin that area of competition was. All charges were dismissed in Federal District Court. I attended the talk as a PRS-credentialed reporter.

Although the New York Law Journal, other legal publications, American Journalism Review, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Business Wire, the Deadline Club of New York, the Publicity Club of New York and others hailed the court decision as a victory for press freedom, there was only silence from NYT, Wall Street Journal, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (of which Rotbart was a graduate), and the Columbia Journalism Review.

Charges included copyright violation, unfair competition, libel and slander. All charges were dismissed.

Revisiting the legal case is relevant now because press intimidation and interference have reached intolerable levels worldwide according to UNESCO, which is launching a campaign against such abuses.

Governments, NGOs and professional associations are to blame for granting “impunity” to the offenders, says Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Revisiting the Rotbart incident is also relevant now because it exposed the hostility of PRS to the O’Dwyer Co., an hostility that continues in the formal PRS boycott against the company and all its staffers and any “assign.” PRS would not provide the Rotbartt videotapes to me or anyone else although it had perpetual, unlimited copyright to speech.

Exposure of the full, 14,000-word transcript would have shown how accurate O’Dwyer coverage was although there were mistakes and omissions. U.S. District Court ruled none of these were substantial.

NYT Schizoid About O’Dwyer!

ny law journal
New York Law Journal coverage of the suit.
An odd element to this story is that only a few years previously NYT had hailed the O’Dwyer NL as the “bible of PR.”

A May 31, 1987 column on PR by Claudia Deutsch had this opening sentence: “Item: Jack O’Dwyer’s Newsletter, the bible of PR, lists huge increases in billings at PR agencies this year.” Deutsch based a major part of the column on the increases in 10 PR firms as documented by O’Dwyer’s Directory of PR Firms—Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller, Ogilvy PR, MS&L, Edelman, Doremus Porter Novelli, Fleishman-Hillard, Ketchum, Golin/Harris and Ruder Finn.

Deutsch also covered a story the O’Dwyer NL had been tracking—the wholesale firings and restructurings going on in corporate PR, including those at Monsanto, RCA, ITT, W.R. Grace, American Standard and McKesson.

Management consultants had told me that corporate PR units were “hotbeds of political intrigue” and PR people were best dispersed to operating units where they could do product publicity. The Sunday NYT Deutsch article quoted me as saying, “Corporate PR is getting killed.” Corporate ad depts. had mostly been closed some 30 years earlier.

I wouldn’t call Deutsch a friend but she had known me from the “Financial Follies” of the New York Financial Writers Assn., where we were both active for many years. She was well acquainted with O’Dwyer publications and the company’s standing in the PR industry.

If NYT initially thought the story was worth a third of a page, why did it never write a word about the ensuing lawsuit, which cost the O’Dwyer Co. nearly $100,000 to answer, or the victory by the O’Dwyer Co.?

I was glad to see the negative views that Rotbart expressed about the press being given wide exposure in Glaberson’s Dec. 27, 1993 column.

But I was flabbergasted by all the negative arrows aimed at me in the Dec. 27 and March 7, 1994 columns including charges I “slipped in to” the session, made a “secret recording,” and was “gleefully” writing about my “archenemy.”

My presence at the speech was acknowledged by Rotbart and taping of speeches and presentations is routine and acceptable for purposes of accuracy. Reproducing the tape word-for-word would be a violation.

Although fewer than 800 words were used of a 14,000-word speech, as advised by lawyers, the Glaberson article falsely said, “Mr. O’Dwyer published a transcript.”

My motive in covering the Rotbart talk was impugned. Wrote Glaberson: “The stated intent was to provoke irritation at Mr. Rotbart for his portrait of journalists as unsavory characters.”

There was no such intent, stated or otherwise. I provided numerous quotes about journalists that Rotbart had made so that the journalists could defend themselves. Eleven were mentioned by name including Susan Faludi, WSJ; John Huey, Stratford Sherman and Brent Schlender, Fortune; Stuart Varney, CNN; Fleming Meeks, Forbes; Alex Jones and Tony Ramirez, NYT, and Hank Gilman, Newsweek.

Journalists Mentioned Negatively

Faludi, Sherman and Varney were mentioned in a denigrating manner.

The quote on Faludi from the transcript filed in the lawsuit is: “Susan Faludi was a C+, B-minus bureau reporter in San Francisco for the WSJ. Not a particularly acute business reporter but she was a particularly acute observer of social functions. Now makes more [in] speaking fees in a year than she used to make at the WSJ in salary in a year.” [Faludi won a Pulitzer prize for her book, "Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women"].

The settlement signed to end the lawsuit forbids the O’Dwyer Co. from distributing “extensive portions” of the transcript. There is no ban against using minor passages for purposes of accuracy. The entire transcript is a public record that should be examined by J schools and others.

Sherman, informed of how he was mentioned in the speech, said he was “deeply offended by it.”

The passage: “Here’s Fortune reporter Strat Sherman (showing photo) and a number of business reporters who are lining up so that they can put their arms around Andy Grove and say, ‘I know you Andy.’ And I don’t know that this is taking place but I guarantee you, you have my personal guarantee, that sometime in the next 12 months some journalist is going to sign a book deal, a multimillion-dollar book deal to co-write Andy Grove’s autobiography. And it’s going to be some journalist who has been cultivating him by writing positive stories to show him what a good friend they are all along. I don’t know if it’s going to be Strat Sherman but we’ll see.”

The passage on Varney said his speakers’ bureau, which had a booth at the conference, expected to book him for 50 speeches that year. Rotbart marveled at what must be more than $200,000 in fees and asked, “And what he does, and what is Stuart Varney’s contribution to the world? He reads the news on CNN in the morning. As a brilliant economist, he’s not. But it is the magic and the power of what TV does for people and again it is what has in many ways corrupted and changed news judgment in this country.”

[Varney, CNN morning news co-anchor, is a graduate of the London School of Economics and speaks on economics].

I did not “slip in to” the Rotbart session. The meeting was open to all attendees and no promise of confidentially had been extracted from listeners, as usually was the case for the “Newsroom Confidential” seminars.

The main headline on the NYT Dec. 27 story, “Wars of Words, About Journalists,” was vague and should have been, “Secret Sessions on Journalists Exposed.”

The secrecy was in the Newroom Confidential series and not in my taping of this sample session at an open conference.

Pumping up the theme that I was out for some kind of revenge on Rotbart, Glaberson described Rotbart as my “archenemy.”

I was only vaguely aware of Rotbart and his publications or seminars.

The O’Dwyer Co.’s seven products at the time covered media and reporters but also corporate, agency, trade association and PR supplier subjects. Rotbart specialized in media, including compiling bios of reporters. Main competitors of the O’Dwyer Co. were PR News and PR Reporter.

Numerous attempts by the O’Dwyer Co. to interest journalism schools in exploring this landmark case have gone nowhere.

There could have been no lawsuit without the cooperation of the PR Society because it had perpetual, unlimited rights to the speech and could have given them to the O’Dwyer Co., thus living up to its Code promise of promoting the “free flow of accurate and truthful information.”