Ever since the story first broke, more than five weeks ago, that David Einhorn was suing Seeking Alpha, the Israeli financial website has been very, very quiet on the topic. Sometimes they have simply failed to respond at all to requests for comment (including mine); other times, as with Andrew Ross Sorkin, a spokesman will formally decline to comment.
So it was a big deal when Seeking Alpha president David Siegel appeared on Bloomberg TV today, and answered Trish Regan's questions about the Einhorn lawsuit. Or, at least, it would have been a big deal, if Regan had actually bothered to ask him any of the obvious questions. Like, for instance, whether he's going to fight it, or what he thinks of the merits of the case.
Instead, however, Regan decided that the best use of her time would be to deliver to Siegel a lecture on (and, presumably, an example of) Proper Journalism:
Trish Regan: David Einhorn has expressed his concern. He would like to know the name of the Seeking Alpha blogger who revealed one of his investments. Who was it?
David Siegel: (laughs, in a WTF kind of way) Well, we're not going to tell you right now. But, um…
TR (interrupting, just as Siegel might be about to say something newsworthy): Why - Why hide behind anonymity? Why not put your name on something?
DS: We vehemently believe that it's critical to have an open platform, where everyone can discuss, and debate, without necessarily having any repercussions to that. With that said, we have 24/7 monitoring on everything… it's incredibly important to us to create the right forum, and we believe that that forum is -
TR: But why, why…
DS: - is a, anonymous…
TR (pushing over anything Siegal might want to say, because she has something more important of her own to declaim): I know but why - why not reveal - I mean, to me, and call me old-fashioned, but part of journalism is when you write an article, you put your name on it. You don't hide behind anonymity. Why allow your bloggers to do that?
DS: It's part of our philosophy. We need to have an open environment, and a flexible environment, for people to feel comfortable posting what they need to. We have a very, very rigorous background check process.
TR (giving Siegel four seconds to answer the big question, and burying it under another one): You can understand why David Einhorn would be upset, why he'd want us to actually know who this person is. I mean ultimately will you guys be held responsible?
DS: David Einhorn has elected, and we have tremendous respect for him, absolutely.
The whole interview is just bizarre. I have no problem with aggressive, adversarial journalism, but the proper place for that is when your interlocutor is refusing to give a straight answer to a straight question. Seeking Alpha has always been very open about offering anonymity (or, more precisely, pseudonymity) to bloggers who request it, for very simple and obvious reasons: many of them are financial professionals whose jobs might be at risk if their identity were made public. Journalists like Regan give anonymity to their own sources on a regular basis, for exactly the same reason.
What's more, anonymity is hardly unheard-of even among very mainstream publications: the Economist, for instance, has no bylines at all, while even the NYT will occasionally withhold a byline from a reporter in a dangerous country, if revealing that person's identity would put them at risk.
Let's say that the blogger in question had phoned up Regan and told her (off the record, but with Regan knowing her source's identity) that Einhorn was buying up shares of Micron Technology (NASDAQ:MU). That might have turned into a nice little scoop for Regan, if she had confirmed it with other sources - all of whom would themselves surely have insisted on anonymity as well.
If Regan had published that story, Einhorn would surely have been annoyed, since he was taking great care to accumulate his stake in Micron as quietly as possible. But here's the thing: Einhorn would never have dared take Regan and Bloomberg to court, trying to force them to reveal her sources. If a journalistic organization finds out a true fact and publishes it, that might inconvenience a hedge-fund manager, but it's not going to result in a court case.
In the Micron case, however, Einhorn saw an outlet which was small enough to bully. If he wins, as Sorkin says, "the case could have a chilling effect on the free flow of information to traditional news outlets" - it would damage not only Seeking Alpha and its pseudonymous blogger, but also Trish Regan and all other journalists with confidential sources. Einhorn wants to be able to keep his own information confidential; he just doesn't want Seeking Alpha to have a similar right.
If anybody deserves a lecture on journalism in this case, then, it's not Siegel, it's Einhorn. Meanwhile, Siegel is faced with a very hard decision. Einhorn is not the kind of person to back down from a fight: he has essentially bottomless resources, and will happily spend millions of dollars on lawyers just to make Seeking Alpha's life miserable and expensive for the foreseeable future. Big media organizations are set up to fight such threats; smaller startups aren't.
So the big question here is not whether Einhorn is right or wrong: of course Einhorn is wrong, Regan's misplaced self-righteousness notwithstanding. Rather, the question is whether Seeking Alpha can and will be able to afford to fight him. That's the big question which every non-enormous media company wants to know the answer to - and that's exactly the question which Regan didn't ask.
Ensconced as she is within the massive Bloomberg borg, Regan doesn't need to worry about the cost of defending her journalistic operation against litigious hedge fund managers. But even Bloomberg benefits from a diverse media ecosystem. And so it's rather worrying that Bloomberg TV should spend its energies defending Einhorn in this case, rather than finding out whether we're facing a very real threat to media freedom.