January 20, 2012

This week I detailed the strange and confusing turn of events that led CNBC to publish, then correct, then reissue a story about a Bain & Company partner providing information to Obama administration officials working on the auto bailout. You can read the post for the full blow by blow, but here’s a five-point recap if you missed the background:

  1. Last Thursday night, CNBC Washington correspondent Eamon Javers published an online report that said, “A 2010 report by the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program reveals that Bain — referred to as ‘Bain Consulting’ — was one of several private sector firms the Obama auto team turned to for advice as it wrestled with what to do about the dealerships.” Yes, that’s Bain of Mitt Romney fame.
  2. The story understandably attracted some attention.
  3. That same night, Bain PR replied to Javers and demanded a retraction, saying “Bain Consulting” was not a reference to them. CNBC unpublished the story and issued a correction.
  4. The correction generated additional coverage and criticism, especially from Baltimore Sun TV/media critic David Zurawik.
  5. It was then revealed the government report was referring to Bain & Company. Bain PR was wrong in demanding the correction, and eventually confirmed the government report. Javers published a new story reconfirming what was in his original story, and CNBC updated its correction. I wrote this post about what happened.

So why come back to this story? First, by now I would have expected the people that piled on Javers to at the very least update their stories and note that the report was accurate the first time, and Bain PR had been incorrect. I’ve seen very few updates. The people who condemned Javers for publishing incorrect information seem to not feel an obligation to note they made their judgments based on incorrect information. Unfortunately, this means readers don’t have the complete picture.

That’s one reason why this story isn’t completely finished. Another is that it raises several questions about verification and sourcing — questions that have primarily been asked by Zurawik. As noted above, he was a strong critic of CNBC when the first correction was issued. (“You don’t make mistakes like this if you verify information before you air it on your cable channel or publish it on your website.”)

I followed up with Zurawik to ask if he felt different now that the CNBC report turned out to be correct. Had the new information confirming the initial report changed his mind?

Not at all.

This section of his reply addresses his concerns:

CNBC aired unverified information. That’s the original sin. None of this confusion would have happened if CNBC had just followed that simple, basic rule: Journalism is a discipline of verification. Don’t publish or air anything you have not verified. It’s not Ok to say, “We called the company, but they didn’t call back right away, so we went with it.”

CNBC was so unsure of the information they aired, in fact, that they instantly retracted it when challenged by Bain.

One of the things that’s nagged me about this story is the fact that the government report referred to “Bain Consulting” rather than Bain & Company. Is a reference to Bain Consulting a clear link to Bain & Company? Did CNBC need to hear back from Bain before running the story? Or, at the very least, from some other source? These are basic questions of sourcing and verification worth considering.

I’ve worked to gather information to help shed some light on these questions. I once again tried to get someone from CNBC to speak on the record, but they declined. I did have off the record conversations with sources there, and they steadfastly support the way their story was handled. (One thing I can share is CNBC’s displeasure that Zurawik didn’t email or phone or otherwise attempt to contact anyone at the channel in the course of his reporting.) I’m not interested in being a referee in a dispute between Zurawik and CNBC, and it’s pointless to try if one side won’t let me quote them.

I do, however, want to dig into the questions regarding sourcing and verification. Here’s a breakdown of three key issues. I’ve added my thoughts, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Issue #1: Bain Consulting vs. Bain & Company

One central issue of dispute is whether Bain Consulting and Bain & Company are interchangeable.

A very basic test is that if you Google Bain Consulting, your results are dominated by Bain & Company. No, that is by no means a definitive piece of evidence. However, I conducted a Nexis news database search for the term “Bain Consulting” to see if the press has been using that name to refer to Bain & Company. Simple answer: yes they have.

I found well over two hundred articles from outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times and USA Today, among many others. Bain’s hometown papers The Boston Globe and Boston Herald have also both used Bain Consulting to refer to the company. The first Boston media reference to Bain Consulting I found in Nexis was the Herald in a 1992 article. We’re talking about roughly two decades of Bain Consulting in the press.

One of the most recent references to Bain Consulting I found came in a transcript from Bloomberg TV, in which Paul Levy, the co-founder of private equity firm JLL Partners, used that name when talking about Romney and Bain. So there’s a financial professional using the name.

In fairness, though, Bain Consulting is by no means as common as Bain & Company in terms of press mentions.

Finally, as noted in Javers’ updated CNBC story, the government report used the name Bain Consulting because that’s how the Bain partner identified himself. So the name is used within Bain itself.

I think there’s ample proof that a reference to Bain Consulting in a government report should have been seen as a reference to Bain & Company. And in the end, that’s exactly what it was.

Issue #2: Not waiting for a reply from the company

Zurawik wrote, “It’s not Ok to say, ‘We called the company, but they didn’t call back right away, so we went with it.’”

This suggests Javers’ email to Bain was a request for confirmation of the mention in the government report. I had also assumed that. That’s not the case.

Sources at CNBC provided evidence that the email from Javers to Bain was not a request for confirmation. CNBC believe confirmation came in the form of the government report mentioning Bain Consulting. (More on that in Issue #3.) Javers was emailing to see if the company wanted to expand on what was in the government report.

The obvious question is: should he have held the story and asked Bain for confirmation?

This is where Zurawik and CNBC diverge. CNBC feels the use of the name in a publicly released government document is information that justifies a story.

Zurawik told me, “If the ‘official government report’ was not clear and confirmed, you don’t go with it. You check it out first, which is exactly what CNBC should have done … “

There is admittedly a strange twist that’s unique to this story: If Javers had gone to Bain for confirmation (as well as comment) and waited to hear back before publishing, he would have received a reply telling him he had it wrong. That could have killed the story altogether — for false reasons.

This is unique because usually a company will either confirm the details or offer a no comment. There is no evidence Bain’s PR team willfully deceived Javers, but they did issue a false denial and demanded an incorrect correction.

It’s also worth noting Javers contacted Bain very late in the day, just before 6 pm. He then waited “approximately three hours” and posted the story when he hadn’t heard anything.

I think it’s fair to question why the story needed to go up at 9 p.m. Thursday night. Could Javers have waited at least until the morning for a response? Did this story really need to be treated so urgently?

As it turned out, Bain PR replied to Javers late Thursday night to tell him to retract his story. If he had held the piece until hearing back, the Bain denial either would have killed the story altogether or — and I think this is more likely — caused Javers to seek confirmation from other sources. Which bring us to Issue #3.

Issue #3: Using the government report as the sole source

Is a citation in a government report enough on its own to justify a story?

The reality is, journalists frequently write stories based solely on information in government reports. Zurawik advocates adding a layer of verification to anything contained in a government document. It’s hard to argue with the value of that.

The most interesting data in support of his view is actually contained in the second Javers story, the one published after he realized Bain caused him to issue an incorrect correction. It includes information from multiple sources that confirm the reference to Bain in the report, and has additional details that frankly make it a better story than the first one.

Whatever your view on the question of using a government document as the sole source of a story, one fact is undeniable: the story was made stronger when Javers spoke to additional sources connected to the bailout.

This reinforces the simple truth that journalism is always improved by doing the legwork and adding additional sources. Even if Bain PR had told Javers the government report was incorrect, his government sources would have provided the necessary information to refute the Bain claim. It’s yet another example of why multiple sourcing is a damn good thing.

At this point, I hope CNBC acknowledges how much better their story was by reaching out to those additional sources. Maybe next time that will help convince them to hold a story just a little bit longer.

I also hope Zurawik will update his original post to note the CNBC correction was incorrect and that many more notable — and accurate — details have emerged. I realize these developments have not changed his mind, but readers need to be aware of them.

As for you, where do you stand on these three issues?

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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