Yo, AP! What, Exactly, Does Meg Whitman Regret?

May4

When we read the story by Juliet Williams of the Associated Press in which she wrote: “Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman said [last] Tuesday she regrets taking part in a now-banned stock sale practice at Goldman Sachs . . .” we searched for a quote to back up the statement that Whitman had expressed “regret.”

There wasn’t one. “The lesson learned about it is you have to be extra vigilant about seeing any actual or perceived conflict of interest,” Whitman said. “I missed the signposts here.”

Williams wrote: “Whitman, a billionaire, said she forfeited the profits from the stock sales as part of the settlement to end the distraction of the lawsuit. She said the practice was part of the ‘normal course of business’ at the time.”

“As I look back on it, would I do it again? No,” Whitman said. However, she was also quoted saying, “There was no link between accepting these IPO shares and funneling business to Goldman.”

We tried to speak to Williams about this to find out if she had a quote in her interview in which Whitman had expressed regret about the actions she had taken in regard to Goldman Sachs – not just the legal and political fallout. But we couldn’t get through to the reporter; we were cut off by John Raess, AP’s San Francisco Bureau Chief, who referred us to corporate AP in New York for a response. More on that later.

We were concerned that Williams had attributed “regret” to Whitman that the former eBay CEO herself did not feel. Let’s be clear, “regret,” according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, is “1. to feel sorry about or mourn for (a person or thing gone, lost, etc.) 2. to feel troubled or remorseful over (something that has happened, one’s own acts, etc.) – n. 1. a troubled feeling or remorse over something that has happened, esp. over something that one has done or left undone . . .”

Our suspicion was confirmed when, in Sunday’s debate, Carla Marinucci of the Chronicle asked Whitman, and John Myers of KQED re-asked, whether she had done anything wrong in the Goldman Sachs spinning incident. Whitman replied:

“I did not do anything wrong. It was a legal and standard practice. With 20-20 hindsight, would I do it again? No, because it was called into question.”

By now it was pretty clear that Whitman didn’t regret what she’d done – she regretted what happened afterward. So we asked her spokesman Tucker Bounds whether Meg regretted having been involved in spinning IPOs that were made available to her by Goldman Sachs.

“Yes. I think the Associated Press report was completely accurate,” said Bounds, who sat in on the interview. “She’s expressed a lot of regret about the issue.”

But wait, we asked. If she did nothing wrong, what does she regret?

“That there was a perceived conflict of interest when one did not exist,” Bounds replied. “Perception is reality and that’s where the regret comes from.”

In other words, Whitman is not sorry. She’s not remorseful about what she did. She sees nothing unethical. No conflict of interest. No illicit insider advantage. She doesn’t think she did anything wrong (even if it was condemned and outlawed later on).

And that’s why the AP story was so  misleading. By writing that Whitman had regrets, Williams suggested that the former eBay boss felt some remorse about what she had done when nothing could be further from the truth. The only thing Whitman regrets is that what she did was perceived to be unethical. As far as she’s concerned it was not only legal, it was just fine.

Which brings us back to our complaint to AP.

Having been told we could not talk to Juliet Williams and that we had to speak to New York, we did and, after a long conversation with Jack Stokes in Media Relations, we were encouraged to send an email outlining our complaint.

Here’s some of what we said:

It’s my belief that unless Juliet has a quote in which Whitman expresses regret, then this was an over-interpretation by the writer of an emotion which the writer has no basis to know. How do we know Whitman “regrets” what she did? We know she says she wouldn’t do the same again because it was perceived to be a conflict of interest. But we have no way of knowing — at least from the quotes Juliet shared — that Whitman has any regrets.

The evidence suggests that Whitman strongly believes — because this is what she says — that she, in fact, did nothing wrong. What is there to regret, except that the whole thing was perceived to be a conflict of interest and has since caused her some political inconvenience?

I am not interested in seeking unpublished material from Juliet. I’d prefer if she published the material she has that substantiates what she wrote and that her editors would demand it. In fact, good editing here ought to dig down to the issue of whether a reporter has overstepped her knowledge base and written something for which she actually has no substantiation. This is a common problem in political reporting where writers characterize the motives and emotions of politicians instead of simply reporting the effect of their statements or actions. How does Juliet know that Whitman regrets what she did? How does AP know this?

Before we sent that note to AP we had received an email from Raess that informed us: “After talking with Juliet and with Tom Verdin [AP’s California political editor] I think we’ll let the story speak for itself. I’m confident it’s an accurate reflection of the interview. I’d be happy to discuss this with you personally.”

And now that Bounds has said the story is “completely accurate,” we don’t expect AP will do anything to repair the misimpression its story created. They’ll figure it’s case closed and that they’ve been vindicated.

They haven’t, of course. They were just used by the Whitman campaign.

Team eMeg wants the news media to say Whitman has expressed regret while, at the same time, never actually forcing their candidate to express genuine regret – which she can’t because as far as she’s concerned, she did nothing wrong.

SCHWARZMUSCLE PULLS PLUG ON T-RIDGE: As Calbuzz suggested almost two weeks ago, the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico kills plans to revive drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara with the Tranquillon Ridge project.

Monday, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced: “That will not happen in California . . . I’m sure that they also were assured that it is safe to drill,” he said. “You turn on television and you see this enormous disaster, and you say to yourself, why would we want to take that risk?”

Which kills the Houston-based PXP Co. project at the State Lands Commission. It’s dead. Done. Kaput.

Leaders of Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center, the enviro sponsors of the PXP deal – which they’ve argued would lead to an earlier end to existing drilling in the region – said they were “very surprised and disappointed” in Schwarzenegger’s move.

Which is understandable, since the governor was still publicly backing the proposal as late as last Friday, and yesterday’s out-of-left field announcement totally pulled the rug out from under EDC. Still they continued to insist the T-Ridge plan is the way to go:

Our plan, negotiated as part of a settlement agreement, would have provided the only legal and available means to put an end to existing oil drilling off our coast…

In terms of next steps, we have no choice but to wait and see what unfolds.  We challenge those who have opposed our plan to tell us how they intend to shut down these platforms and thus reduce the threat of oil spills off our coast.  Maintaining the status quo only perpetuates the existing risks.

As a political matter, the biggest winner in the  situation is Pedro Nava, the termed out Santa Barbara Assemblyman who’s running for AG, who has fiercely battled the proposal since it surfaced more than two years ago. Said Nava:

I am pleased that Governor Schwarzenegger now agrees with me, Florida’s Governor Charlie Christ and, 110 other environmental organizations that the PXP proposal to drill three miles off the California coast is a bad idea and not worth the risk. We welcome the Governor’s change of heart. .

Now it’s time for PXP to pack up their tent and abandon their plans to open up the California coast to new, dirty, and dangerous offshore oil drilling.

This just in: Sarah Palin says she hopes the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico won’t lead to distrust of oil companies. Spill, baby, spill.


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There are 2 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    AP shouldn’t have defended the article. Their reporter slipped. As so many do these days, imputing feelings to people they write about when it is so easy — and accurate — to say they regretted, or feared, or hoped something…if in fact they said it.

  2. avatar CarolineSF says:

    Former newsroom journalists (like me) wearing new hats seem to frequently learn that our former colleagues absolutely dig in their heels and doggedly refuse to admit flat-out mistakes — I’ve found that a shocking number of times as an advocate for public education. It gets pretty uncomfortable when the perp is someone with whom you have past professional or social connections. But I guarantee that if they get your middle initial wrong, they’ll burn up the keyboard getting that correction in.

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