Did Rupert Murdoch Crash The Wall Street Journal’s Bo Guagua Ferrari Story? (Updated)

May 18 UPDATE: After spending 35 minutes on the phone with Andy Browne, Wall Street Journal China head, and exchanging emails with Jeremy Page, I am issuing several corrections/clarifications. They are in bold in the text below. This is an unfortunate situation for everyone involved. I believe the Wall Street Journal is working on a followup story that we should all hope will end the controversy and allow people to focus on the more important stories. I had no desire or intention to end up in the middle of this. I also want to clarify that when earlier today I wrote on Twitter that “wall street journal china editor andy browne may b helped by pr skills acquired during time at Brunswick Group 2 help deal w ferrari-gate” I in no way was disparaging Browne’s brief segue into the PR world. Quite the opposite in fact; Brunswick is a world-class organization and that experience most likely made Browne both a better journalist and gave him the experience to help manage through exactly this kind of PR mess. END UPDATE

Regular readers will remember the previous discussions of the Wall Street Journal’s erroneous reporting about Bo Guagua, a red Ferrari and the WSJ’s eventual correction.

Media entrepreneur, fashion maven and Weibo celebrity (4.7m fans) Hong Huang has just dropped a bomb on the Wall Street Journal. Huang knows some of the participants in the “Ferrari-Gate” story and this week she wrote 知情人洪晃亲述:闹得沸沸扬扬的薄瓜瓜和红色法拉利内幕 for an influential Chinese magazine. WantChinaTimes has summarized her article in English in Red Ferrari, red herring: How WSJ backed down on Bo Guagua claim.

I know Huang and consider her to be serious and credible. So does the Wall Street Journal, which in 2010 called her The Godmother of Chinese Designers. Huang alleges sloppy journalism, Murdoch meddling, and threats against a source. If this were a US-based story it would probably make it to the top of Gawker. Andy Browne repeatedly challenged my assertion that Hong Huang should be considered “serious and credible”. He did not change my view of her, nor have I changed my view that the simple fact that someone as influential as Huang is saying these things is newsworthy on its own. That said, Browne and Page categorically deny that they harassed or threatened any source related to this story.

Huang writes that:

a friend of hers was hunted down by the Wall Street Journal who wanted her to confirm the truth of the Ferrari story, but her friend said she had not made the claim. The friend was nonetheless deemed to be the “source” to which the Wall Street Journal referred in its piece, though how she came to be cited as such is a somewhat convoluted affair. It is reported that the friend was the matchmaker who introduced Bo Guagua to Huntsman’s daughter. Huntsman allegedly mentioned the story to others, including media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. As Murdoch could not act as the source for a story run by one of his own titles, he dispatched his reporters to find other sources which led them in time to Hong’s friend. The story finally reached the front page of the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 26 last year…

The New York Times gladly published Bo Guagua’s rebuttal of its rival’s claims, Hong continued, also saying that the New York Times followed up with an interview with Huntsman’s daughter, who said she had been a passenger in Bo Guagua’s car but could not remember what make it was or even swear to the color of it.

The denial resulted in Hong’s friend being badgered by the Wall Street Journal, which wanted to clear its source on the Ferrari claim to avoid losing face and presumed that she was the one who had made the original allegation. The repeated approaches from the newspaper led the friend to the brink of a nervous breakdown, Hong said, saying that her friend had told her that she was not the source of the Ferrari story because she was the one who transported Huntsman’s daughter to a restaurant to dine with Bo Guagua in a dark blue Volkswagen Jeep.

The Wall Street Journal then reportedly threatened Hong’s friend, suggesting that if they could not reach Bo Guagua through her, they would reveal her identity as the source. Hong comforted her friend and advised her to deny everything, whatever the truth of the matter.

What a cockup by the Journal. Jeremy Page, the main author of the original Ferrari story, has written some really good articles, but this mess stains his work, though perhaps the lede was foisted on him by someone with closer ties to Murdoch. For those who think I have an axe to grind with the Journal, you forget that I love the paper and owe its previous owners a lot. I just do not like sloppy journalism about China.  Jeremy Page takes sole responsibility for the lede and the reporting around the Ferrari. Any suggestion that anyone besides Page is responsible is incorrect. My suggestion otherwise was viewed by Browne as impugning the integrity of Page personally and the Wall Street Journal in general. That was never my intent, and as I have stated several times I believe Jeremy Page is one of the best foreign reporters working in China. But we all make mistakes, clearly. 

What other China coverage has Rupert Murdoch meddled into? Yes, it is his paper, but…The good news, or bad depending where you sit, is that in China phone hacking is done by an even higher power than Murdoch. Andy Browne stated categorically that in the years that he has been running the China bureau Rupert Murdoch has never meddled in coverage, suggested a story or even passed on information for a story, either directly or through anyone else. And yes, the hacking comment was a cheap shot.

And why was Jon Huntsman gossiping to Murdoch about Bo Guagua? Perhaps because fealty and gossip are keys to the heart of the man who controls the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, and when you are a GOP candidate for President you need to feed that beast?

No doubt the folks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are relishing this mess as it is just more fodder for their complaints about inaccurate western media coverage of China, and in this case it appears to involve one of the most powerful Western media barons and a former US Ambassador to China.

The Wall Street Journal’s official answer to the question in the headline of this post is NO. 

If any of the participants would like a forum to discuss this just let me know…

May 17 UPDATE: Gawker has weighed in on the story in Wall Street Journal Fights Back Against Claims Rupert Murdoch and Jon Huntsman Fed It a Bullshit Rumor:

I emailed Page this morning to ask if he had any comment on Hong Huang’s claims. Roughly an hour later, I received a call from the Journal‘s China editor Andrew Browne. “I know Hong Huang personally,” he said. “We know her very well. She deliberately chose not to contact us and check facts, and almost every piece of information she puts forward is not true. Let me be categorical: Rupert Murdoch had nothing to do with that story.” I pressed Browne on that point, and he crafted as definitive denial as possible: “There was no communication at any point between our bureau and Rupert Murdoch, nor was there any message passed on to us that passed through Rupert Murdoch directly or indirectly. He had nothing to do with it.”

As for the allegations that the Journal harassed and threatened a source, Browne went into a lengthy explanation of how Page reported out the initial anecdote. “That unnamed source was a person we contacted ahead of publishing our original story,” he said. “She did not respond to our questions. We sent repeated emails to Bo Guagua. He did not reply. We put questions to Jon Huntsman, and his wife. They chose not to reply. We did our due diligence.”

Months later, Browne says, this woman—whom he says was not a source for the original story—came to the Journal and claimed that the story was wrong. (This same source was one of the people the Times spoke to for its debunking.) Browne denies harassing the woman. Asked if he threatened to publish her identity, he grew circumspect. “The question of identity is really an issue of honesty,” he said. “It’s time for people to put their names to statements. I’m saying, ‘Let’s put names behind allegations.’ Is that a threat?”

I’m told by a source familiar with the story that Browne himself contacted the woman in question on more than one occasion, and that she did in fact feel badgered by him.

I’m further told that Huntsman related the bogus Ferrari story to Murdoch as the two men broke bread. END UPDATE

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