Is the fix in for the Paula Jones-Tonya Harding fight? If it is, I don’t want to know about it, and you don’t either. We’ve been disillusioned enough already. First there was the revelation that “Nightline” was just another television program; then came the shocking news about sex and the “Harvard Business Review.” If we should find out now that Fox TV has told Paula to go in the tank for Tonya, or Tonya to take a dive for Paula, we might lose our faith in the media completely.
The “Harvard Business Review” scandal, however, is complicated. The subtleties of Harvard ethics come into play. But we do know that Suzy Wetlaufer resigned as editor of the review on Friday, and told the staff she was sorry that her “actions diminished your confidence in me.”
By “actions,” she presumably meant her romantic involvement with Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric.
The romantic involvement, which had been disclosed by the “Wall Street Journal,” and not by some low-brow tabloid, apparently began when Wetlaufer was editing the interviews she had conducted with Welch, and putting them into question-and-answer form. According to the “Journal,” Welch’s wife, Jane, called Wetlaufer then, and asked her how she could be objective about the editing if she was carrying on with her husband.
Mrs. Welch, it seemed, had raised an important journalistic question. Consequently a repentant Wetlaufer killed the Q&A with Welch, and reassigned the piece to two other staffers. As Walter Kiechel, the editorial director of the review, explained, Wetlaufer was concerned that “people who didn’t understand the timing of when the relationship developed might call into question the objectivity or fairness or accuracy of the interview.”
And he added: “Nothing that has happened has in any way compromised the integrity of the ‘Harvard Business Review.’”
But as the “Journal” also reported, and as Howard Kurtz of the “Washington Post” then noted, the “Harvard Business Review” allows the people it interviews to read, comment on, and make changes in the interviews before they are published. In other words, the prestigious “Harvard Business Review” operates just like any other fan magazine. To get access to a celebrity, it promises the celebrity full immunity. Nothing he or she says will be used against them, or embarrass them in any way.
This may not sound like objective journalism, but Harvard has its own rules, so what can you say? Apparently it’s OK to flack for the people you write about; it’s just that you can’t sleep with them. Anyway Wetlaufer, who was earning $276,000 a year as editor, will stay on at the review as editor-at-large.
Meanwhile the controversy over “Nightline” lingers on. ABC had wanted to replace Ted Koppel with NBC’s David Letterman, and distinguished journalists everywhere were alarmed. Letterman now says he will stay with CBS, but the damage already was done. ABC’s Diane Sawyer was reported last week to have shown her distress by canceling her appearance with Letterman on his “Late Show.” At the same time, Barbara Walters called ABC’s treatment of Koppel “thoughtless and hurtful.” ABC, after all, had been negotiating with Letterman without telling Koppel about it, and anonymous ABC executives had disparaged “Nightline.” As “Newsweek” reported, they complained that it “has grown stale and sluggish” and that it “performs especially badly on the increasing number of days when substitutes fill in for Koppel.”
How this will eventually end nobody knows, although as Koppel wrote in an op-ed piece in the “New York Times,” America needs him now more than ever. The war on terrorism has made him indispensable. On the other hand, none of the ABC news stars, distressed as they might have been, had resigned in protest over “Nightline’s” fall from grace. They’d all soldier on, even if Koppel were gone.
Which brings us back to the Jones-Harding bout. Fox taped it last week, and it will be shown on Wednesday night, and Fox has promised us a good clean fight. You certainly hope that’s true. We’ve had enough controversy already. Meanwhile news buffs can also look forward to Thursday night. Sawyer will interview Rosie O’Donnell on “Primetime.”
John Corry is a former New York Times media critic. His column runs every Tuesday.
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