Pot, Kettle, Black: Has HP Bought the Wall Street Journal?

Everyone knows that Hewlett Packard is on a buying spree these days, but I had not realized they had set their eyes on the Wall Street Journal.

The other day the Journal’s All Things Digital website slammed fellow business journalist Joe Nocera of The New York Times for an appearance of a conflict related to his columns on the HP CEO fiasco.

But it turns out the Journal’s reporter on the story, Kara Swisher, has her own conflict that she failed to tell readers about. And the Journal now appears to be engaged in a rewriting of the history books to erase any effort to explain this to its readers.

As I noted here a while ago, Nocera first wrote a column calling the HP board the “most inept in America.” He has lots of company in that view, including Jack Welch, perhaps the most successful CEO in American business history who said he could not understand the board’s inability to groom good CEOs. Oh, and for what its worth, I told the press that the board was a problem, too.

Nocera then pointed out in another column that the new incoming HP CEO, Leo Apotheker, has a small problem. He was CEO of SAP while SAP owned a business that SAP admitted had stolen IP from SAP competitor Oracle. Turns out Apotheker was also a member of the SAP Executive board at the time and clearly had supervisory power over the business. Nocera noted the irony: HP fired Mark Hurd for expense account problems but hired Apotheker despite his role at SAP which had by then admitted the IP theft in front of a US judge.

But that didn’t stop incoming HP Chair Ray Lane from writing an angry email to the Times in an effort to shoot the messenger. Lane contended Apotheker had, basically, no responsibility for the IP crimes. And then for good measure he said the outgoing Hurd was a serial liar, about what he did not say, but this was news to the world since this little detail was left out of the statements issued by HP when they first dumped Hurd back in early August.

The Times did not run the full version of the Lane email, but Kara Swisher of the Journal was willing to do so, as it appears HP leaked it to her. (When I suggested that HP had leaked it to the Journal on the ATD website, Swisher did not deny that.)

Swisher seems to be acting as a kind of PR flak for HP these days, also running a feel good interview with Lane and Apotheker (breathlessly titled: Ray and Leo “talk about their new gigs!”) And she was more than happy to introduce a column by the business partner of HP Director Marc Andreesen with the title: “VC Ben Horowitz Takes Aim at HP Critics (Are you listening Jack [Welch] and Larry [Ellison]?)” [More about Andreesen/Horowitz below.]

But running the Lane/Nocera email was not enough for All Things Digital.  It turns out that Nocera is engaged to a woman who happens to be a staff member of the law firm of David Boies, Boies Schiller Flexner, which is one of the law firms representing Oracle in its lawsuit against SAP. Although Nocera said he was unaware of the role of the Boies law firm when he wrote his columns, the Times placed a comment on their website that had Nocera known this he would not have written the story because it would have created an appearance of a conflict.

So All Things Digital took this factoid and ran a column by John Paczkowski  saying Nocera’s reputation has now been “smeared” – of course, it was the Wall Street Journal that was doing the smearing!

TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington took a different tack – suggesting that HP was, once again, engaged in questionable tactics against journalists. Readers may recall that HP engaged in questionable “spying” on journalists several years ago. Several current board members of HP were on the board then, too.

I went on to the ATD site and pointed out that it was ironic that the Journal would attack fellow journalist Nocera for a conflict when they had, as I noted above, run the column by Ben Horowitz, the longtime business partner of HP board member Marc Andreesen, who – surprise, surprise, surprise – defended in laudatory terms the HP board’s role in ousting Mark Hurd.

But the Journal never noted the legal obligation and business motivation that Horowitz had in penning that column. The inherent bias would not necessarily be obvious to readers without a full explanation and should, in fact, have prevented the Journal from running the piece at all.

Horowitz and Andreesen sold HP their company Opsware in 2007. The entire Valley knows how life basically sucks for people whose companies are sold to HP – they get laid off, and if not laid off, complain of sweatshop conditions. Of course, Andreesen did not have to go to work for HP – he got a seat on the board of directors for 400K per year on top of the millions he was paid for his stock in Opsware. And Horowitz quit HP after only a year, leaving his rank and file employees to deal with life under Mark Hurd.

And now Horowitz and Andreesen have a VC fund which helps fund startup companies that aim to be acquired by big companies like HP. And those startup executives look to people like Horowitz and Andreesen for advice on how to deal with the HP’s of the world, if not HP itself.

So it is hardly a stretch to suggest that Horowitz had a bit more of a conflict in this situation than Nocera, a reporter rather than a player in the Valley. I pointed this out to the All Things Digital crowd and then was roundly attacked by Kara Swisher who even tried to suggest that I was sexist (?!) for asking why John Paczkowski did not respond himself. Swisher is convinced that for a Times journalist to do what Nocera did is to commit an unpardonable sin.

She told me, finger wagging: “Nocera had a big obligation to disclose, as per the NYT ethics rules that are incredibly clear. We have the same ones at Dow Jones.”

Perhaps Ms. Swisher, or her editors, should pull out that dusty copy of the Dow Jones ethics rules and re-read them.


Well, recall that Nocera’s crime, apparently worse to the Journal than Apotheker’s role in SAP’s theft of Oracle IP, is that Nocera’s fiance works for a law firm representing Oracle on the SAP lawsuit.

So late last night I was browsing the comments section again of the All Things Digital site and someone pointed out that Kara Swisher herself is married to an executive at Google, a fact which she duly discloses in her ATD biography.

But what the comment went on to explain is that Swisher does not tell readers that even though she is covering the HP/Oracle story, her spouse’s employer, Google is, like SAP, being sued by Oracle for theft of intellectual property (patent infringement, actually). And guess who is representing Oracle in this lawsuit? Yes, that’s right, Boies Schiller Flexner, the same firm representing Oracle!

Now here is the weird part: the comment posted on the site last night about the Swisher conflict, which noted humorously that perhaps those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, has now been removed from the Journal’s website.

Odd, isn’t it, that commenters at the free market Journal are treated like those Trotskyites who were erased from the history books in Stalinist Russia?

UPDATE: I have asked the Journal’s editors to explain Swisher’s behavior, but so far no response. Unlike the Times the Journal may not be so willing to admit their problem.