MEDIA WATCH: Affair scandal exposes HBR to editorial and ethicalcriticism

The affair between former GE CEO Jack Welch and Suzy Wetlaufer, the editor of the Harvard Business Review, has had a far-reaching impact.

The affair between former GE CEO Jack Welch and Suzy Wetlaufer, the editor of the Harvard Business Review, has had a far-reaching impact.

While some coverage has focused on how the scandal affects Welch, an analysis of overall media coverage revealed that reports have more often addressed the impact on Wetlaufer and HBR. A divorce lawyer interviewed on CNN (March 14) even suggested that Wetlaufer was keeping the story alive: "If you want a story to die, you don't give it legs. You don't give press releases. She's doing that all over the place."

There was widespread reporting that Wetlaufer lost her job because of her own indiscretion. However, the reporting appeared critical of the arrangement reached whereby she would take a vacation for a few weeks and then return in the demoted position of editor-at-large. The deal prompted two HBR editors to resign in protest, telling the Boston Herald (March 13), "This isn't about an affair. This is about treating the magazine as the personal plaything of the editor. No one has the right to be so careless with the lives of 50 hard-working dedicated professionals."

The publication itself was hit from a number of angles. There appeared to be widespread agreement that Wetlaufer "gave the staid Business Review a black eye when she mixed her personal life and professional duties

(New York Daily News, March 14). Meanwhile, CNNfn (March 13) reported that HBR, "perhaps the country's most respected business journal ... has been the subject of tabloid fodder!"

HBR was also hit for revelations that it is standard practice to allow those it interviews to edit the final versions of the articles in which they appear. The Los Angeles Times (March 15) expressed its disgust with this policy, which it called "the most disturbing fact to emerge from the scandal.

The article attacked the HBR, saying, "CEO interviews in America's leading academic business publication are (nothing more than) carefully manicured public relations exercises."

Wetlaufer's breach of ethics was attacked in a number of stories. An editorial in The New York Observer (March 18) asked, "How can Harvard justify its support of an editor who demonstrated such arrogant disregard for journalistic objectivity?"

A number of articles approached the story from a different angle, covering the initial divorce proceedings between Jack and Jane Welch. There was widespread reporting that their prenuptial agreement had expired, and it appeared likely that she would have a good claim to half of his $680 million fortune.

Interestingly, there has been very little coverage of a remarkable comment by Jack Welch in the March 3 Wall Street Journal article that broke the story on his affair. In recalling how much of a role he had in editing the article resulting from his interview with Wetlaufer, Welch stated that he threatened her that he'd "burn your house down if you don't change it."

Media reports indicate that the relationship between Welch and Wetlaufer is continuing. They may need each other's support, as there are likely to be trying times ahead for both of them. As for the Harvard Business Review, time will tell how much damage has been done to its reputation.

- Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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