Know your place as a business journalist

by January 29, 2014

When I was young, I was covering the historic Texaco-Pennzoil trial in Houston. At one point, James Kinnear, the president of Texaco sought me out and we had a great conversation. He left me his card and wrote his private telephone number on it (this was pre-cell phone days). I felt important.


“Never forget where
you stand: Your job
is to seek out
the best available
version of the truth,
to be a watchdog.”

But even I wasn’t that young. The trial was being held before a hometown jury favorable to Pennzoil and Texaco needed the press on its side. I knew where I stood.

In your career as a business and financial journalist, you may get a chance to meet some of the titans of the age. But never forget where you stand: Your job is to seek out the best available version of the truth, to be a watchdog, a tribune for the readers and the public trust.

Critics say that the modern American chief executive is often a sociopath and there’s some truth to it. But up close and in person many of these individuals are charismatic, smart, funny and engaging. Some are even inspiring and admirable.

I can drop a lot of names: Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, Hugh McColl Jr of Bank of America., Ed Crutchfield of First Union, Jack Welch of General Electric, the Cincinnati financier Carl Lindner, Dick McCormick of US West, airline wunderkind Doug Parker and airline graybeard Stephen Wolf… NCR’s Chuck Exley said he admired my writing so much he offered me a job as a speechwriter making twice what I was bringing in at the newspaper. (I declined).

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon with reporters

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon with reporters as he arrives at the White House in 2013. Photo: Reuters

You will build your own list and, along with this, names of assorted lieutenants making more in a year than you will make in a lifetime. But never trust what conviviality or seeming sympatico connection that seems to exist, whatever breakthrough you seem to make.

To put it bluntly: You are there to use them. Ethically, yes. But use them. They certainly see it that way from their side of the transaction. The best CEOs understand you have a job to do. Many others can be bullies and thugs if their “reporter friend” doesn’t turn out the cheerleader copy they expect.

The reality is that most see you as the hired help. You’re not at their social level, at least as they see it. And, yes, the rich are different.

So never compromise your ethics. Never forget your place. The road to the Great Recession and a host of other ills was paved by too many business journalists being too chummy with those they covered.