By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Jack Welch’s journalistic values (II)

It was Election Night 2000. Fox News had just called Florida for George W. Bush. And, according to allegations that were later investigated by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, General Electric chairman Jack Welch put his arm around NBC News’ director of elections, Sheldon Gawiser, and asked him why NBC was not doing the same.

Welch, of course, was both a major contributor to the Republican Party as well as Gawiser’s überboss, since GE owned NBC. The behavior described by Waxman is the very definition of inappropriate interference in the news operation by a meddlesome owner.

The Waxman investigation came to a head on Sept. 10, 2001, when the California Democrat released an eight-page letter detailing efforts that Welch had allegedly made to influence NBC’s election coverage. We all know what happened the next day; the investigation was quietly shelved.

But the allegations raise more questions as to whether Welch would respect the traditional dividing line between the newsroom and the publisher’s suite should he be successful in putting together a deal to buy the Boston Globe from the New York Times Co.

I learned about the allegations regarding Welch’s behavior that night from Phil Rosenthal’s column in today’s Chicago Tribune. Digging deeper, I found this Los Angeles Times story on Waxman’s Web site. Here’s the heart of it:

According to Waxman’s sources, Welch spent much of the night at NBC’s decision desk, where election returns were projected.

Among their allegations:

  • Welch and other visitors “distracted” NBC News Director of Elections Sheldon R. Gawiser with repeated questions about how his projection decisions were made.
  • Welch had access to raw election data that weren’t available to news anchors, writers, producers or other on-air reporters.
  • After instruction about reading the data, Welch later concluded that Bush had won Florida, and shared his analysis with Gawiser. Witnesses told Waxman that “at almost the same time, John Ellis — George W. Bush’s cousin and Fox News’ senior decision desk official — called both the Florida and the national election for George W. Bush. Immediately after this announcement, Mr. Welch was observed standing behind Dr. Gawiser with his hand on his shoulder, asking why NBC was not also calling the election for Bush.”

According to Waxman’s sources, “shortly after this,” Gawiser called the election for Bush. A similar call was made by all major television news outlets within minutes.

Unfortunately, Waxman’s investigation was a mess, marred by his insistence that NBC turn over a videotape — by subpoena, if necessary — that might have shed light on Welch’s behavior. Waxman’s attempted assault on the First Amendment was the subject of a contentious interview with Waxman by NPR’s “On the Media” and in a letter by the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

And even Waxman conceded that Welch may have been joking when he reportedly said to Gawiser, “How much would I have to pay you to call the race for Bush?”

Nevertheless, as Waxman wrote in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in August 2001, “I don’t know if Jack Welch acted inappropriately on election night, but it’s a question that’s both easily answered and worth answering.”

Now more than ever.

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  1. Anonymous

    Ernie Boch,III here,Jack had the power to do that and he did. After all, media is nothing but private industry. But what will happen if guys use to being in total control, Jack Welch, Jack Connors, and Joe O’Donnell take over the Globe? Well, there will be defined boundries. And no one owner will have that type of control over the day to day operation. I don’t think Jack Conners wants Jack Welch dictating the editorial content of the papert. And vice versa. And Joe O’Donnell the same. So mutual fear destruction will keep Jack Welch from putting his arm around Joan Vennochi and teling her to write a positive piece about Cardinal O’Malley.Let him bitch and moan, but we want him for his money and local address. And yes, he knows how to cut costs. But that doesn’t give him contol over the content.I’ll take my chances with this group.

  2. Anonymous

    And at least Jack was more overt about his prejudices. Which is more problematic, that or the current, disingenuous atmosphere? Coin flip, IMHO.

  3. o-fish-l

    I could take or leave Welch, but in this case he sounds like the shrewd, genius of a businessman that we have all heard about. Fox was already accurately calling Florida for Bush, so why would NBC wait? It’s akin to what I imagine the CEO of General Motors must have said to his underlings in the late 80’s after Chrysler and Ford made airbags standard equipment on new cars…what the hell are we waiting for?Having a moderate looking over the shoulder of a newsroom may not be the worst thing. Think of the shame and embarrassment (and careers) that would have been spared Dan Rather, Mary Mapes and C-BS if there was just someone checking their work who wasn’t blinded by the love of all things Democrat.

  4. Spa King

    Wow! What a non-story. Six years later and Bush still won. Man, get over it.

  5. mike_b1

    Since when is Welch a moderate?

  6. Daver9

    YOu think it can’t get bad at the Globe, no bias on the news pages, distorted coverage dictated by the publisher? Let me tell you a short story.I worked at a small city daily by a publisher who literally banned U.S. Senate candidate Paul simon from the news pages in 1984 election. And banned a state senator he didn’t like in his campaign in 1986 and banned all opposition coverage to a new highway proposal. On pain of firing, nothing could appear ont he news pages. Radical reporter me covered all these and wrote up articles and pictures and only to have them sent into the trash can by editors fearful of their jobs. anyone notice NBC’s current coverage of Bush and Iraq? Oh boston, it can get far far worse.

  7. Anonymous

    Yeah, Dave. It sure is a good thing Globe doesn’t currently let editorial board’s views color the news. (I’m looking forward to a piece on how global warming is affecting same-sex couples in JP.) Jacoby is lonelier over there than the Maytag repairman.

  8. mike_b1

    Jacoby is proof that conservatives are best seen and not heard. His prose is weak, his reasoning nonexistant.

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