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May 8th, 2007

Suing the Company You Cover: HP Pretexting Saga Continues

Rarely do you hear about reporters suing one of the companies they cover, but that’s exactly what the NY Times and others reported yesterday regarding a handful of reporters involved in the Hewlett-Packard pretexting scandal.

Three journalists from CNet Networks, including Dawn Kawamoto, Stephen Shankland, and Tom Krazit intend to sue HP for invasion of privacy. Kawamoto, Shankland, and Krazit split off from the original group of seven journalists involved in a joint lawsuit to seek their own representation. The other four reporters — three from BusinessWeek and one from The NY Times — continue to pursue settlement discussions as a separate group.

So what’s to make of all this? I have to admit that my gut reaction was to question the journalist’s decision to take this thing to court. “Do we really need a civil suit here? How has this possibly hurt you financially Mr./Mrs. Journalist? In fact, hasn’t the attention you’ve received from this case (i.e. being named in just about every high-profile publication) actually helped your journalism career?”

But an interesting comment in the New York Times piece by a media ethics professor swayed me the other way. He said “a journalist is a citizen.” When you put it in these terms, it’s hard to dispute the validity of such a suit. After all, one of the world’s largest corporations was found guilty in a court of law for conducting illegal activities that involved a breach of civil liberties. Because Shankland, Kawamoto, Peter Burrows, John Markoff and several others involved in this case happen to be journalists, should they be exempt from to the lawful privacy enjoyed by the rest of us?

It’s also important to remember that the journalists involved in this case are no longer allowed to cover HP for their respective publications. Does this qualify as a financial hardship? Doubtful. These are veteran reporters that have been redeployed elsewhere and have done just fine for themselves. But if I were in their shoes, I’d be more than a bit ticked off that HP essentially made this career decision for me. HP’s illegal course of action shaped these reporters’ future in journalism. This shouldn’t sit well with anyone.

I do hope, however, that the journalists stick to their original idea and donate any lawsuit winnings to a charitable organization. I know most journalists aren’t exactly swimming in piles of money, but my hope is that this civil suit is principle driven – aimed more at punishing HP than pocketing a few bucks to finance a new book.

/Dave Black

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