HP scandal reveals troubling view of media

It's claimed that modern business travels at the speed of light, but the leak probe scandal that severely damaged the reputation of tech giant Hewlett-Packard seems more like a slow- moving train wreck.

It's claimed that modern business travels at the speed of light, but the leak probe scandal that severely damaged the reputation of tech giant Hewlett-Packard seems more like a slow- moving train wreck.

Each day brings new sordid revelations about boardroom backstabbing, corporate spies, and, in the end, plenty of finger-pointing as executives look to save their own skins by blaming others. It has all been very public and very embarrassing - and, of course, the media have been there to report every excruciating detail.

Part of what makes the HP story so compelling is that it offers such an unflattering behind-the-scenes portrait of corporate America.

"Even in private circles, people were talking and laughing about the degree to which these people would sneak around to get information," notes Christine Tatum, assistant business editor at The Denver Post and president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "It's not that these types of ugly little tactics haven't been tried in the past; it's just this is the first time a company has been so publicly busted for it."

It was also a business story the masses could understand. Instead of complex financial transactions, this one featured a three-ring circus full of high-profile villains, hare-brained schemes, and a congressional show hearing complete with witnesses exercising their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. No wonder it quickly leapt from the business pages to the cover of Newsweek.

But beneath the headline-catching details, the HP follies have also unearthed some very troubling attitudes in business and in the relationship between the media and the companies they cover. Not only did some of HP's board members and executives hire people who posed as reporters in their attempt to ferret out who was leaking company information, but these hired investigators were also plotting to sneak into newsrooms at night and rifle through reporters' desks.

This is far more than just distrust or dislike of the media; it is outright contempt, and Tatum suggests that at least part of this mindset stems from the federal government's increasingly cavalier attitude toward reporters and their right to protect sources.

"You have federal prosecutors going on fishing expeditions, so it's really no surprise that companies are also behaving in this manner," she says. "They feel empowered and emboldened to do this."

But the media shouldn't end up feeling too self-righteous in the aftermath of the HP saga - it's not as if journalists don't grapple with their own ethical challenges.

"The reality is journalists sometimes use surreptitious techniques to get information, and there are times when journalists are less than forthright," says Bob Steele, the Poynter Institute's Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values. "So while this is a situation where the journalists should hold the HP executives accountable, they should also be looking within their own glass houses and at their own modus operandi."

Simply because it is such a high-profile company, HP will no doubt continue to be a major story, at least in the business pages. And maybe America's corporate leaders and the media will learn that the ends don't also justify the means - even in today's results-driven world.

"There has always been tension between journalists and corporate executives," says Steele. "Ideally, there is also that respect, and, ideally, it's the respect that keeps people on each side from doing something not only ethically foolish, but potentially illegal."

PR certainly plays a role in fostering that mutual respect, yet somehow that mechanism broke down at HP. The end result is that the communications professionals there are going to find themselves awfully busy over the coming months and years, slowly rebuilding a once-great company's now tarnished name and its damaged relationship with the media.

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