Jan 13, 2024 - Business

How to bully a media company

Bill Ackman

Photo: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bill Ackman, a hard-charging hedge fund manager, is reasonably typical in terms of how he behaves upon publication of a story he doesn't like. Where he's not typical is in his willingness to be open about what he did:

When the "Neri Oxman admits to plagiarism story" broke, I reached out to a board member I knew at BI, and to its controlling shareholders, the co-ceos of KKR, and to Mathias Döpfner, the Chairman and CEO of Axel Springer. I assumed that with a call or two, I would be able to convince BI or AS to suspend the stories.

Between the lines: BI is Business Insider, a publication that reported accurately that Ackman's wife, Neri Oxman, admitted to instances of plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation. KKR is a major shareholder in Axel Springer (AS), which owns BI.

  • Ackman's assumption was that because Springer owns BI, he could bully them into taking down the story, overriding BI's editor-in-chief.

Reality check: While it's true that hedge fund managers often find it easier to talk to CEOs than to editors, it's incredibly rare for a CEO to override an editor.

  • Tom Glocer, a former CEO of Thomson Reuters, tells Axios that "I was contacted multiple times (by disgruntled hedge fund managers in particular) when Reuters wrote something less than the adoring hagiography they sought."
  • "My standard playbook was to refer the complaint directly to the editor in chief, to let the EIC call the complainant directly, and to remind that person of our separation of church and state."

The bottom line: Ackman was not being realistic in his assumptions. But he had something of a tailwind because he's Jewish; he was accusing BI of anti-semitism; and Springer is strongly and explicitly pro-Israel.

  • In the end, Ackman got further than the hedge fund managers who complained to Glocer — Springer said they'd look into what had happened.
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